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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Heightened partisan divisions associated with the 2016 presidential election resulted in a shortening of Americans' Thanksgiving dinners that year, by 30–50 minutes, a new study in Science found.

Why it matters: The research, using precinct-level polling information and a vast database of anonymized cellphone location records, suggests that Americans are less willing to socialize with family members who hold opposing political viewpoints. However, at least one outside expert is raising the alarm on using that level of data for non-government surveillance.

"I have not come across a paper that relied on such precise cellphone data. This strikes me as novel and innovative. It also makes me feel a little uneasy."
— Jeremy Frimer, political scientist, University of Winnipeg

The data: The study examines two databases.

  • The first is via the company SafeGraph, which looks at anonymized smartphone-location data from more than 10 million Americans, allowing researchers to observe actual travel at precise time and geographic levels. The study examined a database of 21 billion pings from November 2016, as well as 4.5 billion pings from November of the prior year.
  • The second is a precinct-level database for presidential voting for the 2016 election, as well as 2015 voting information. That data encompasses 172,098 precincts across 99.9% of counties nationally, the paper states.

What they did: The cellphone data gave researchers Keith Chen of UCLA and Ryne Rohla of Washington State University an idea of which precinct a voter was in, by inferring each smartphone user's home based on the pings between 1am and 4am local time.

  • They used the precinct-level voting information, along with Census data, to infer how each anonymous phone number likely voted.
  • They incorporated Thanksgiving Day smartphone pings between 1pm and 5pm during both 2015 and 2016 for about 10,000 phone numbers (i.e. voters) that showed up in both years' data.
  • The scientists also looked at the effects of the barrage of political advertising that people living in swing states were subjected to during the 2016 election, compared to 2015.

What they found: They found that political advertising likely more than tripled the "Thanksgiving effect" in 2016.

  • Thanksgiving dinners attended by people who were likely to be of opposing parties were cut short by 30 to 50 minutes. Nationwide, 34 million hours of cross-partisan Thanksgiving dinner discussion was lost in 2016, the researchers found.
  • The Thanksgiving effect was not there in 2015, although the sample size that year was smaller. “That’s not, you know, bulletproof but that’s kind of interesting,” Chen told Axios.
  • Cross-partisan Thanksgiving dinners were cut especially short in areas where people were exposed to high volumes of political ads, such as Orlando, Florida, which is a swing part of a swing state.

Privacy concerns: Frimer, who was not part of this study, said the use of the precision cellphone data raises some alarm bells, particularly in the wake of the debate regarding the 2016 campaign political ad targeting methods that were used. He said:

"Using cellphone data for national security purposes (with judicial oversight) seems like a reasonable compromise between needs for privacy and safety. Whether allowing this level of surveillance for commercial/scientific purposes is another matter and worthy of reflection and discussion. Personally, I feel uncomfortable with allowing companies to sell and distribute such personal data for commercial/scientific purposes."

Yes, but: Frimer said the analysis in the paper is "an extremely impressive demonstration of a well-established psychological phenomenon called the selective exposure," or confirmation bias, although he questioned some of its findings.

Study limitations: The study implies that there's real personal damage being done to Americans due to the politically charged atmosphere. “It has personal costs," Chen said. However, the research is only based on two years of data, and the U.S. has been through periods of intense political divisions before.

What's next: The study's authors plan to track Thanksgiving data for 2018 and beyond to see if the partisan divisions harden, or if people get used to this level of political tension and the effects diminish.

“This particular blend of partisanship that is emerging now…I suspect that people are going to acclimate to that," Chen said.

Go deeper

Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers

President Biden speaking from Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Jan. 21. Photo: Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A federal judge in Texas blocked the Biden administration from enforcing its coronavirus vaccine mandate for federal workers on Friday, citing the outcome of last week's Supreme Court ruling that nullified the administration's vaccine-or-test requirement for large employers.

Why it matters: It's a blow to President Biden's efforts to increase the U.S.' vaccination rates, though much of the federal workforce has already been vaccinated against the virus.

Updated 4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds — Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker
Updated 5 hours ago - Economy & Business

Janet Yellen co-opts Reaganomics phrase for new Davos speech

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen at a speech this week. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The U.S. needs to focus on increasing its productive potential, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told world leaders Friday, calling for what she terms "modern supply side economics."

Why it matters: She co-opted a phrase traditionally used by political conservatives to describe low-tax and deregulatory policies — and framed the Biden administration's initiatives as the best path forward to achieve greater national prosperity.