Is Gmail Hiding Bernie’s Emails To You? How Inbox Filtering May Cripple Democracy


By Adrianne Jeffries, Leon Yin & Surya Mattu
The Guardian (2/26/20)

Pete Buttigieg is leading at 63%. Andrew Yang came in second at 46%. And Elizabeth Warren looks like she’s in trouble with 0%.

These aren’t poll numbers for the US 2020 Democratic presidential contest. Instead, they reflect which candidates were able to consistently land in Gmail’s primary inbox in a simple test.

The Markup set up a new Gmail account to find out how the company filters political emails from candidates, thinktanks, advocacy groups and nonprofits.

We found that few of the emails we’d signed up to receive – 11% – made it to the primary inbox, the first one a user sees when opening Gmail and the one the company says is “for the mail you really, really want”.

Half of all emails landed in a tab called “promotions”, which Gmail says is for “deals, offers and other marketing emails”. Gmail sent another 40% to spam.

For political causes and candidates, who get a significant amount of their donations through email, having their messages diverted into less-visible tabs or spam can have profound effects.

“The fact that Gmail has so much control over our democracy and what happens and who raises money is frightening,” said Kenneth Pennington, a consultant who worked on Beto O’Rourke’s digital campaign.

“It’s scary that if Gmail changes their algorithms,” he added, “they’d have the power to impact our election.”

It’s well known that Facebook and Twitter curate which posts people see through the news feed, highlighting some while others are scarcely shown. What’s received less attention is how email has also become an algorithmically curated and monetized platform – essentially another feed – and the effect that can have. Some nonprofits and political causes said inbox curation is reducing donations and petition signatures. …

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