Is Gmail Biased Against Elizabeth Warren or Is Everything Just Awful?

Illustration for article titled Is Gmail Biased Against Elizabeth Warren or Is Everything Just Awful?
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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 percent of the time. Former candidate Andrew Yang saw 46 percent of his campaign’s emails land in the primary inbox. Overall, just 6 percent 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.

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.

Senior editor, consumer tech @ Gizmodo



The headline on this article is awful, I’ll tell you that.

It’s not particularly odd that some campaigns would more commonly hit Google’s flags for being a useful/priority email. This isn’t really “playing a game.” Campaigns that are more inclined to solicit uninterested users will get marked as spam more often, dropping their scores. Campaigns that fall afoul of spam filters for their delivery practices will have their scores dropped. We don’t know what other indicators that Google uses, but it’s entirely likely that simply interacting with emails causes their signal to go up (e.g. more people click on Yang’s emails, so he scores better), which might just be a mark of how engaged people are with a campaign.

A deep dive into the whys of this might be interesting (including whether this could be abused by rival campaigns - by, say, signing up lots of Gmail accounts and marking everything as spam), but implying that Google is biased against a particular candidate or “everything is awful” is total nonsense.