Help, My Candidate Is Dying: Most Campaign Emails Are Manipulative, Study Finds

Researchers analyzed 100,000 emails from political groups, and found patterns of manipulation and deceit.
October 6, 2020, 3:42pm
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"I'M BACK!" the subject line of an email from Trump's reelection campaign screamed into inboxes on Monday, announcing his release from Walter Reed hospital for Covid-19 treatment. 

According to a new study of hundreds of thousands of political emails from the 2020 election cycle, most emails from political groups are like this: desperate attempts at tricking people into reading them.

A group of researchers affiliated with Princeton University's Center for Information Technology Policy (CITP) developed a corpus of nearly 260,000 political emails, and found that most tried to manipulate or deceive readers into opening the emails.

The researchers analyzed 100,000 of those emails from over 2,800 political campaigns and organizations, from December 2019 to June 25, 2020. "We find that manipulative tactics are the norm, not the exception," the researcher wrote in a working paper that focuses on that six-month span. The corpus is expanding as they update the project, and as of Monday, it contained 259,406 emails from 3,059 senders, which they'll analyze in full after the election.

The 100,000 they've analyzed so far are from 1,084 federal candidates, 1,359 state candidates, 264 PACs, and 127 other organizations. Anyone can search the database by sender or keywords. 

The patterns they found revealed a tension between emails being flashy enough to get the recipient to open them, but not too outrageous as to be outright lies or triggering unsubscriptions. Many of them rely on guilt tripping recipients. From a colleague’s inbox last night: “Sick to our stomachs. Devastated…McConnell winning. We are going to throw up” and “Giving up! Losing all hope.”

The majority of emails use "at least one of six manipulative tactics" identified by the researchers; those tactics include using information or curiosity gap strategies, sensationalistic subject lines, time urgency, obscuring names of senders until the email is opened, faked threads that changed the "from" field, and misuse of Re: and Fwd: in subject lines to make it seem like the emails are coming from an ongoing conversation. 

Some of the most aggressively deceptive methods included twisting the email formatting itself to make it look like the recipient had already replied, such as changing the "from" field to display as “John, me (2)." Others obscured the "from" field entirely, changing it to something like "INCOMING: Trump’s REVENGE.”

"Deceptive and manipulative tactics are the norm in our corpus, not the exception," the researchers wrote. 

To automate the process of signing up for that many email campaigns, they made a bot that discovers email sign-up forms on campaign websites, and fills them with the information of a fictional recipient and a unique email address each time, according to the paper. The bot also downloads everything embedded in the email, including cookies and tracking pixels, and takes a screenshot of the whole message.

The researchers also found that many emails include a call to donate, and use deceptive techniques within the fundraising itself, including fake deadlines and false claims of donation matching. Even when subject lines got people to click by claiming they were not asking for money, most of those did, actually, ask for money later in the email.

In an election cycle where disinformation floats everywhere on social media, campaigns that use targeted emails to manipulate voters into donating or filling out surveys are yet another nosey source of misinformation for voters to sift through.

I would still like someone to explain the email from the Bernie Sanders campaign with the subject line "salivating," but maybe that's a mystery better left unanalyzed.