Republicans Working the Refs, Gmail Edition

Lachlan Markay, reporting for Axios:

The Republican National Committee fired the latest shot on Wednesday, when chairwoman Ronna McDaniel claimed in a statement to Axios that Google has “systematically attacked” its digital program. The RNC claims Google’s Gmail, the nation’s top email client, has been suppressing fundraising emails during strategically critical periods this year.

Google told Axios its spam filter is thoroughly apolitical, and that it’s taking steps to ensure political messages aren’t inadvertently flagged. [...] Google did not address the RNC’s specific complaints, but stressed, “we do not filter emails based on political affiliation.”

“We recently asked the Federal Election Commission to advise us on a potential pilot for political bulk senders that would provide more transparency into email deliverability, while still letting users protect their inboxes by unsubscribing or labeling emails as spam,” said Google spokesperson José Castañeda in an emailed statement.

That pilot, first reported by Axios this week, would initially exempt political senders from Gmail’s spam filter, while giving recipients more visible options to flag those messages as spam going forward.

For the sake of argument, let’s concede that Gmail flags as spam more political emails from Republicans than Democrats. I’d bet that this is in fact true — and if it’s not true, there’s no basis for this controversy.

One possible explanation is that Google is doing this deliberately to hinder Republican fundraising. This is what the GOP is claiming.

Another possible explanation is that GOP fundraising emails really do tend to be more spammy, both in content and in frequency, and thus should be getting flagged as spam more frequently than those from Democrats by non-partisan filtering algorithms. I.e. that Gmail’s spam filtering algorithms are biased only against junky messages. I get a lot of email from Democrats based on my political donations. I also voluntarily signed up for emails from the Trump campaign in the 2020 election, just to see what they were like. In my experience, the scenario I describe in this paragraph is almost certainly the case: Republican political emails are spammier.

Fundraising emails from Democrats are very frequent, and often melodramatic in their ostensible urgency, but in my experience they are legit. Unsubscribe links are where you expect them at the bottom of the emails, and unsubscribing works.

Fundraising emails from Republicans — especially those from the Trump campaign — look and read like scams. And, apparently, often now are outright scams — the Trump family has apparently raised over $250 million since the 2020 election for an “Official Election Defense Fund” that doesn’t exist. Emails with subject lines claiming that you have “one hour to claim your free gift”, or that Trump himself has recorded a personal message just for you but he needs some dough before he’ll send it to you. All political fundraising solicitations are a bit greasy, but the Trumpy ones are so scammy they’re beyond parody.

The Republican argument is that Gmail (and all other email providers — but Gmail is the biggest in the U.S.) ought to flag Republican and Democratic emails as spam in equal measure, and if Republican emails are flagged more frequently, it’s prima facie evidence that Google is biased against Republicans. It’s like a basketball team that plays rough and commits a lot more fouls than their opponent but yells and screams that the refs are biased against them because more fouls are called against them. The refs aren’t biased if the team they flag for more fouls actually commits more fouls. And a spam filter isn’t biased if one party’s emails are more spammy and thus more likely to be flagged as spam.

But it sounds like Google, eager to avoid being tagged as anti-conservative, is working on something to exempt political emails from their general spam filtering algorithms. I get it that this bullshit is a headache Google doesn’t need, but I’d like to see them stand firm that their spam filters are working as intended — flagging messages based on their junkiness, not their political slant.

Friday, 1 July 2022