Is Gmail Biased or Are Some Presidential Campaigns Just Better at Marketing?

There’s a gigantic industry tasked with taking full advantage of the Gmail tab system, using a universe of discordant and different technologies to maximize the reach of marketing messages.
February 27, 2020, 1:00pm
Image: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

More than 1.5 billion people use Gmail, and preventing malware and spam from reaching these users is a herculean task. Since 2015, Google has claimed that 99.9 percent of spam is blocked, and last year the company integrated its in-house machine learning framework, TensorFlow, to help filter 100 million additional spam emails every day.

The company has also added new filters which automatically sort emails into "primary," "promotions," "social," "forums," and "updates" inboxes. But can the company’s filters be gamed by clever political marketing teams?

Hoping to answer that question, The Markup used a Tor browser (to avoid any online footprints that might indicate a political leaning) to create a new Gmail account. With it, they ran an experiment to see which emails from candidates, think tanks, advocacy groups, and nonprofits had the best chance of having their marketing missives survive Gmail's filters and make it into the "primary" inbox." The results were curious: 63 percent of Pete Buttigeg campaign emails made it to a user’s primary inbox, compared to 46 percent for Andrew Yang. Just 2 percent of Bernie Sanders campaign emails reached the primary inbox, compared to 0 percent for Elizabeth Warren. Just 11 percent of emails the experiment signed up for actually reached the primary inbox, with 50 percent dumped into the Gmail “promotions” tab and another 40 percent dumped into the spam folder. For political candidates and nonprofits, this can mean the difference between massive attention, significant cash donations, and obscurity. It’s power Google really shouldn’t have, critics suggest. “The fact that Gmail has so much control over our democracy and what happens and who raises money is frightening,” Kenneth Pennington, a consultant for Beto O’Rourke told the outlet. “It’s scary that if Gmail changes their algorithms they’d have the power to impact our election.”

But while there’s certainly problems inherent in Google’s quest to monetize your inbox, there’s too many variables to know what to take away from these findings. (That it's hard to say is of course one of the main problems—Google's algorithms are, as ever, a black box.) For example, the Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, Yang, and Bloomberg campaigns are most assuredly using different marketing teams who in turn are using a wide variety of different programs, technologies, URL placement and even language phrasing—at varying volumes—to maximize the reach of their marketing messages. There’s currently an entire multi-billion dollar industry tasked with taking full advantage of the Gmail tab system, using a universe of discordant and different technologies to maximize the reach of their marketing messages. You’d need a far more comprehensive report to declare that Google’s intentionally putting its finger on the scale.

On any given day, a bevy of marketing teams spend endless hours attempting to game these systems to improve the reach of their marketing assaults, utilizing a wide variety of technologies to maximize open and “click through” rates. While data suggests that many users disable Gmail's tab system, the fact that marketers could now pay for top placement in the social and promotions tabs raised worries that activists and nonprofits would find their messages buried by companies with deep pockets. “We believe that our ability to inform and engage the public in political action, which we believe is fundamental to a healthy democracy, is being impeded,” a coalition of eight social action groups complained to Google in 2018. In the wake of the Markup report, a number of groups like the American Economics Liberty Project fired up, ironically, automated email marketing campaigns accusing Google of extortion.

“What Google is doing is monopoly 101 and yet another example of why they need to be broken up and regulated,” the group said in an email to journalists. “Google isn’t just controlling what coupons we get, they’re undermining a core tenant of our democracy by deciding what emails people see from groups they belong to and even their own members of Congress.”