If for some reason you have willingly handed over your Gmail address to allow yourself to be spammed by presidential campaigns—perhaps because you want to be alerted to fundraising efforts or to find out more on the candidates’ stances—you might have already noticed something a little funny about which candidates’ emails make it to your inbox.
Investigative outlet The Markup discovered that, of all the presidential candidates, Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign emails never land in a Gmail user’s primary inbox. That’s the first Gmail tab you see when you check your email in a desktop browser, so when an email is filtered to primary, you’re more likely to open it.
In The Markup’s test, which used a new Gmail account created using anonymous web browser Tor, Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s emails somehow make it to the primary tab 63 per cent of the time. Former candidate Andrew Yang saw 46 per cent of his campaign’s emails land in the primary inbox. Overall, just 6 per cent of candidates’ emails ended up in primary; the rest were usually filtered to the promotions tab, which is where marketing emails end up.
So is Gmail biased toward Buttigieg and Yang? Does Google have a vendetta against Warren?
The Markup didn’t draw any conclusions but did provide its code and methodology on Github, which other folks used to examine the site’s work. The real culprit, former Facebook security chief Alex Stamos tweeted, is more likely to be Buttigieg and Yang’s use of email delivery criteria—markers that indicate that an email is less likely to be spam. One user replied to Stamos claiming that Warren’s campaign emails don’t use NGP Van’s mass-mailing compliance tech, which Gmail’s algorithms could take into account for filtering purposes, while Buttigieg’s emails do. We’ve reached out to NGP Van for confirmation on which clients use its service and will update this post when we have more information. But the primary takeaway is that there is an art and a science to how this stuff works and some campaigns may be better equipped than others.
It's great that The Markup posted their code and data to GitHub, but they missed two important factors:
1) What infrastructure is each campaign using? Something like NGP Van will be a strong signal for filtering.
2) How many campaigns are adding others without opt-in? https://t.co/hSr6d42aQw
— Alex Stamos (@alexstamos) February 26, 2020
Gmail’s algorithms take into account a whole host of factors when determining which tab to filter an email to. None of those criteria are outlined clearly anywhere. But it seems like Gmail prefers Buttigieg and Yang simply because their campaigns play the mass email game better than Warren’s does.
There’s also the distinct possibility that users just find some candidate’s emails more annoying than others and flag them as spam.
You can turn off Gmail’s tabs, or use an email client like Apple Mail that doesn’t support tabs. It’s unclear exactly how many people actually use Gmail’s tabs, or what effect, if any, a presidential campaign sees when its emails are diverted to promotions instead of primary. After all, Yang is already out of the race, so being good at email isn’t necessarily the best indicator for success.
But if we’ve learned anything in the last four years, it’s that algorithms influence the information that you see. Whichever candidate learns to play the Gmail game better than the others may have a leg up when it comes to capturing the nomination.