It started as strange conflicts sometimes do: with a couple of older people telling their son that something is wrong with their shared email account. “My parents, who have a Gmail account, aren’t getting my campaign emails,” Representative Greg Steube of Florida told Google CEO Sundar Pichai in July 2020, during a congressional hearing that was ostensibly about antitrust law. “My question is, why is this only happening to Republicans?”
Though this exchange was widely regarded as goofy and kind of random, it started a conversation about Republicans’ relationship to the email inbox and Google’s alleged interference with it. This spring, the conflict escalated following the publication of a study conducted by researchers at North Carolina State University, which found that Gmail sent most emails from “left-wing” candidates to the inbox and most emails from “right-wing” candidates to the spam folder. Over the next couple of months, Republicans in Congress took private meetings with Google’s chief legal officer and railed against the company in public. Then, in June, a group of Republican senators introduced a bill called the Political BIAS Emails Act, which would “prohibit providers of email services from using filtering algorithms to flag emails from political campaigns that consumers have elected to receive as spam.”
This bill hasn’t gone anywhere, partly because Google has made the point moot. Shortly after the bill was introduced, Google asked the Federal Election Commission to review its plan for a pilot program that would allow political campaigns to apply for exemption from spam filtering. (The review was requested to ensure that Google’s program wouldn’t constitute an illegal “in-kind” campaign contribution, which it could have even though it was offered to all political parties.) The Democratic National Committee called the program “unfortunate” and accused Google of succumbing to a “bad-faith pressure campaign,” but the FEC ultimately approved the plan in August. The pilot program is now in full swing; Republicans have gotten their way just ahead of the midterm elections.
The situation is absurd but sort of funny. Why bother understanding a technology if your squeaking about it will elicit grease anyway? Anecdotal evidence (e.g., Steube’s parents) and one research paper have given weight to Republicans’ grievances. No matter that the study’s authors say their work has been misrepresented, and have emphasized that the paper never argues that email providers are intentionally reducing the visibility of political emails. It was also a limited study that lacked some real-world context: In 2020, researchers made 102 new email accounts on Gmail, Outlook, and Yahoo Mail, and then subscribed them to email lists for both presidential campaigns and 234 congressional campaigns. (Which, to my mind, already undercuts the realism of the experiment, because many people end up on these lists without subscribing to them on purpose.) For whatever reason, Google did filter out significantly more emails from right-wing campaigns, while Outlook filtered out the majority of all political emails, and Yahoo filtered out slightly more emails from left-wing candidates. “The spam-filtering algorithm is a black box for us,” Hassan Iqbal, one of the study’s authors, told me. “We have no reason to believe that there were deliberate attempts from Gmail, Outlook, and Yahoo to create these biases.”
Despite its limitations, the study does contain two genuinely relevant details. First, in Gmail, “the percentage of emails marked as spam from the right-wing candidates grew steadily as the election date approached.” This increase in spam flags coincided with an increase in email volume—more emails were sent, and Google’s spam-filtering algorithm marked a larger fraction of them as spam. Second, user behavior had a major impact on spam filtering. When email recipients moved emails from their inbox to their spam folder, Google started to flag more emails as spam. (And vice versa: If a user started moving things to the inbox from the spam folder, flags went down.)
Which all prompts the question: Could it be that people receiving emails from Republicans just … really don’t want those emails?
Some anecdotal indications suggest that this may be the case. The Trump campaign was notoriously aggressive and deceptive in its email strategy, and The New York Times has reported on the prevalence of inflammatory overstatements and egregious misinformation in emails from Republican politicians more broadly. (The authors of the email study noted that one of the terms Google’s filter flagged almost every single time was radical left.) And again, volume is a relevant factor. “It’s worth noting that, in the 2020 election, the RNC and the campaign for Trump sent orders of magnitude more email than did any other campaign entity,” Anne P. Mitchell, a lawyer and the founder of the email reputation-certification service SuretyMail, told me. “When inbox providers and spam filters see a ton of email coming from one sender, it is much more likely to be marked as spam, because flooding inboxes is what spammers do.”
I ended up talking with Mitchell because she had sent a letter to the FEC during its period of public comment on Google’s pilot program—she was strongly against the idea. “While Google is no doubt reacting to recent events, and recent charges of partisan favoritism in their filtering algorithms,” she’d written, “opening up the floodgates to their users’ inboxes and making their 1.5 billion users bear the brunt of the massive amount of political spam that is sent, in order to assuage partisan disgruntlement, is not the best way to address these charges.” She added in a parenthetical: “I have thoughts on what _is_ the best way, however Google has not thought to ask me.” This note of bitterness intrigued me, so I thought I ought to ask her what Google should do.
Mitchell helped write the 2003 anti-spam legislation known as the CAN-SPAM Act, which was meant to address complaints about deceptive marketing emails and commercial spam. She told me the name was appropriate because the law did not work at all, and Americans can indeed be spammed. “Of all the quote-unquote developed nations, the U.S. is one of the only ones that don’t require consent before your email address is put on a mailing list,” she said. Here, there are only three legal requirements for someone to add you to their mailing list: They must include an option to unsubscribe, they have to note their physical address in any email they send, and they can’t fake the email’s source. “So people can buy mailing lists, put you on them, and … spam you until you ask them to stop.”
In an attempt to solve the political-spam issue, the Google pilot program requires participants to put an unsubscribe option in an obvious header box at the top of all political emails. (The gray box asks users, “Do you want to continue receiving messages from this sender?” and offers two choices: “Continue receiving” or “Unsubscribe.” If a recipient selects “Unsubscribe,” they are then asked if they want to report the message as spam.) Mitchell thought this was a good innovation, although she would have preferred that the box ask recipients right away whether they would like to report the email as spam. Regardless of the window’s wording, however, she suspects that the results will be educational. Go ahead; send as much email directly to voters as you want, and then find out for yourself if they want to see it.
As for Republicans’ arguments about political bias, her theory—based on years of helping customers figure out how to get their emails through filters—is that users are reporting Republicans’ emails as spam, which is training Google’s spam-filtering algorithm to recognize similar emails as spam. This is Google’s party line as well. “As we have repeatedly said, we simply don’t filter emails based on political affiliation,” José Castañeda, a spokesperson for Google, told me. “Gmail’s spam filters reflect users’ actions.”
In other words: “Republicans are whining that their email is going to spam,” Mitchell said. “The actual way to fix it is to stop spamming.”
People seem to wholeheartedly agree. During the FEC’s public-comment period on Google’s proposal, the agency received an overwhelmingly negative response. “There was an unusual number of comments,” Ellen Weintraub, an FEC commissioner, told me. “Most of the comments were about how people don’t want their inboxes cluttered up. That was not the legal question,” she said, but “it’s interesting to hear that people care about these issues.”
So, yes, the public comments were almost all entirely off-topic. Nevertheless, the American people deserve to be heard, and I spent an entire day reading more than 1,000 of their letters to the FEC, so I deserve to present some of my favorite comments in a bulleted list:
- “Absolutely do NOT allow political spam!! I am sick to death of being flooded with garbage, and politics in this country is nothing but a money grab by corrupt idiots.”
- “Hard pass.”
- “i need communication services to allow access to information i opt into. not to conceptually rob me of life (time) with unwanted solicitations political or otherwise.”
- “Nobody should get an exception to spam filter policy, especially not the most determined, egregious and malicious spammers in the nation - politicians.”
- “I don’t give a rat’s patootie if the RNC thinks they’re being discriminated against.”
- “Please deny this stupid request.”
- “I WANT THE ABILITY TO HAVE SPAM go into a spam folder!!! Life is TOO short to have to spend my time sorting.”
- “Do NOT send political spam to me! If I receive it, I will start a spread sheet of the candidates, and vote AGAINST the candidates who violate my privacy the most.”
As you can see, your fellow citizens are not as bad as you thought, and actually they’re hilarious and admirably engaged in the democratic process.
I read so many of the public comments submitted to the FEC because I was curious about whether I might find some voters offering their own defense of the Republicans’ position. I did not find a single one. (Although a handful of comments were so incomprehensible as to make their viewpoint difficult to assess.) Over the past several years, the idea that Republicans are being “shadowbanned,” minimized, or deprived of attention at the whims of Big Tech platforms has become a core issue for the party—this fixation has often been lambasted as being irrelevant to much of the voter base, but there has been obvious interest among Americans in seeing their representatives fight “censorship” on social media. In this instance, however, the base is nowhere to be found, and there is no love or intersection of interest. (“Please do not allow Gmail to allow political emails out of the spam folder,” one citizen wrote to the FEC. “If I want to hear from my favorite MAGA candidate, I add him or her to my contacts.”)
So what was gained from all of this? The Republican National Committee has not yet applied to participate in the pilot program, citing concerns about sharing more data with Google. “Google would be placing unprecedented levels of limitations on campaigns and committees and also gaining unprecedented access to both user and supporter data,” the RNC’s chief digital officer, Christian Schaeffer, told me. The Democratic National Committee has joined the pilot program, however, despite its spokesperson Daniel Wessel reiterating to The Washington Post that his party always thought the plan was bad. “We disagreed with Google’s decision to cave to Republicans, but we aren’t going to unilaterally disarm our email program.”
And late last month, the RNC filed a lawsuit against Google in California, arguing that the company was illegally discriminating against Republicans. The legal argument invokes common-carrier laws (which arguably do not apply to email providers), as well as antidiscrimination laws in California. The suit claims that every person on the RNC’s email list opted in to receive messages, and that the RNC worked with Google over 10 months to adhere to best practices and determine why its emails were being sent to spam folders. In particular, the RNC has found it confusing that its emails go through to inboxes most of the time, but tend to be routed almost entirely to spam for the last few days of each month. “There is no basis, in fact or data, that would explain why at the end of every month our inboxing rates plummet other than political bias,” Schaeffer argued.
The FEC’s Ellen Weintraub brought the lawsuit up sardonically, noting that it was filed despite Google’s implementation of the pilot program. “If they were hoping to make friends, they were not very successful.”