Google claimed to us and the groups themselves that nothing had changed in their algorithm that would have caused the plunge. The company is not transparent about what it sends to the promotions tab, which it describes as a place for “deals, offers, and other marketing emails.” Google says Gmail categorization is personalized, meaning user activity can affect where an individual’s emails are delivered.
A lot of news outlets would have stopped there and published a story that said, essentially: On the one hand advocates say this, and on the other hand Google says that. But we’re not that kind of newsroom.
How might we figure out what Google was actually doing with these emails, we wondered? Well, one way would be to conduct a simple test of which political advocacy emails would go into the promotions tab if we did not override Gmail’s default categorization.
So we opened a new Gmail account, using a new phone number and Tor, an anonymizing browser, to avoid sending signals about political leanings based on previous web activity. And then we figured: Why stop at testing what happens with these few advocacy groups? We signed up for the mailing lists of more than 200 politicians and advocacy groups and downloaded the emails we received over four months. (Here’s our full methodology
When we analyzed where the emails ended up, we found that the advocates were right: Gmail’s algorithm sent half of all political email to the promotions folder—including, bizarrely, 25 percent of email from current members of Congress via House.gov email accounts, which by law can’t be used for campaigning. Another thing that caught our attention: There was a stark difference in how the algorithm sorted emails from presidential candidates. Pete Buttigieg and Andrew Yang had the best luck landing in our primary inbox, while Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar were most frequently plunged into the promotions inbox.
We didn’t investigate why that was the case—some email marketers have suggested it may be because of the differences in campaigns’ email hygiene or choice of email providers. But we’re not email marketers, so our question was a different one. We wanted to examine Gmail’s sorting algorithm—in the same way social platforms’ algorithms are scrutinized for prioritizing some posts over others.
“The fact that Gmail has so much control over our democracy and what happens and who raises money is frightening,” Kenneth Pennington, a consultant who worked on Beto O’Rourke’s digital campaign, told us. “It’s scary that if Gmail changes their algorithms, they’d have the power to impact our election.”
Google is a private company and is under no requirement to let us see its algorithm or to sort emails from candidates equally. All we can do from the outside is see what the algorithm does—its effects—and leave it up to readers like you to make up your own mind about whether you’re comfortable with that. To uncover those issues for you is why we built this newsroom.
Thank you for joining us on this journey as we tackle one unaccountable algorithm at a time. (And, if this email moves you, we will gratefully accept your donation of any size here