How Gmail Quietly Controls a Vital Channel for Political Speech

Facebook is powerful. Gmail is powerful, and no one knows it.

Welcome to BIG, a newsletter on the politics of monopoly power. If you’d like to sign up to receive issues over email, you can do so here.

Everyone who gets email issues of BIG gets them because they have voluntarily signed up to receive information. We have a nice community of readers going, and I learn a lot from you. And yet, on occasion, when I sent out an issue of BIG, it doesn’t reach Gmail users.

I find this frustrating, but it’s actually a much bigger and more serious problem than just a few newsletter not getting delivered. A reader reached out to me after I tweeted about the problem, and described how it impacts political organizing and the ability of political leaders to communicate with voters.

Gmail created differentiated tabs (inbox, social, promotions, etc) in 2013 ostensibly, as with nearly every consumer-facing change Google makes, in furtherance of improving user experience. But Gmail also uses these tabs as an opportunity to serve ads to email users: Cluttering the main inbox would maybe bleed away users, but they feel more acceptable in these quasi-commercial tabs. The promotions tab is particularly interesting, because a lot of stuff you actively sign up for and expect to have show up in your normal inbox sometimes lands there — newsletters, info from small business, emails from nonprofits or candidates, etc. From a business standpoint it's in Gmail’s interest for the promotions tab to include the most “inbox-y” stuff that Gmail can get away with pushing into it, to keep it relevant so that people will open the promotions tab and see the ads there. 

These ads basically look like emails, and show up right at the top of your email in the relevant tab.

But a big problem with this, from the perspective of the person or entity doing the emailing, is that getting stuck in the promotions tab means people are way less likely to see your email. Determining when content gets steered into these tabs seems to be based on really opaque algorithms, which themselves likely change — and any given change might itself be a function of a second-order algorithm, or engineer-compelled changes. No way for us to know! But if you send emails to a subscription list you can get a good sense that some  change is impacting you by observing open rates — sometimes they just fall off of a cliff with no warning. 

The Markup has studied Gmail algorithms and found that open rates for many activist group emails in Gmail plummeted over the course of a few months in 2018 because they were shifted into the promotions tab. 

Gmail has a huge market share — by some counts a majority in the US — so this kind of thing can undercut a political organizing program or even cause an existential crisis for a group that raises a lot of small donations through email. The Markup then considered an obvious, perhaps even more worrisome, implication of this: Political campaigns are ever-more reliant on online tools to get out their messages, raise money, and recruit volunteers. But the inscrutable Gmail algorithm, and inscrutable changes to it, can drastically impact candidates’ abilities to do these things. 

People have spent the last 5 years fretting about the role Facebook might play in augmenting election results — but Gmail can completely subvert an candidate’s electoral chances and has gotten minimal scrutiny. 

A certain subset of entities has extra profound incentives to buy Gmail ads in the promotions tab: precisely those emailers who used to land in the inbox but now suffer from way lower open rates because they just got jammed into the promotions tab! If they pay they can at least show up at the top of it and maybe improve visibility somewhat. It’s a classic throttling/up-sell maneuver, and is operationally really similar to what net neutrality advocates have been demanding ISPs not be allowed to do — make a site or app harder to access by artificially slowing the speed at which it loads, and then charging the site/app owner to speed it back up.

(Incidentally, if you want to train Gmail’s algorithm, check your inbox for issues of BIG by searching for “Stoller,” and then move them from the Promotions folder to the inbox).