Despite What Fox News Tells You, A New Study Did Not ‘Prove’ That Gmail Is Targeting Conservatives

from the spam-spam-spam-not-bias-spam dept

Some of you may recall that, back in July of 2020, there was one of those interminably long “tech CEO” hearings in front of Congress that appear to serve only to make politicians look foolish, out of touch, and technically illiterate. Among the most laughable moments was when Rep. Greg Steube wasted everyone’s time by whining to Sundar Pichai of Google that some of his campaign emails were being flagged by Gmail as spam. As tons of people pointed out in response (1) perhaps the problem was that Steube’s campaign emails were spammy, and (2) spam filters mess up all the time. Amusingly, I’ve had multiple emails sent by people employed by Google get lost in my spam filter. Content moderation at scale is impossible to do well, and the first and best example we have of that is the spam filter.

Anyway, a few weeks ago some computer science researchers at North Carolina State University released a preprint of an article looking at “the political bias in email spam filtering algorithms during the US 2020 election.” The researchers signed up for a variety of campaign emails from federal candidates running for both houses of Congress and the White House, and then had emails go to the three top free email systems: Gmail, Microsoft’s Outlook, and Yahoo Mail, and then looked at the spam filter results. It’s an interesting, but not particularly enlightening study.

The study found that Gmail’s spam filter filtered more Republican candidates emails as spam than Democratic candidates. But Yahoo and Outlook both had the opposite, filtering more Democratic candidate emails than Republicans:

We observed that the SFAs of the email services indeed exhibit political biases: they treat the left and the right campaign emails differently. Gmail leans towards the left as it marks a higher percentage of the right emails as spam. Outlook and Yahoo, on the other hand, lean towards the right

There may be some different takeaways from this, but generally, they should be that spam filters have always been somewhat random and not very good and that they are trained off of a massive corpus of data, not based on any political leanings of programmers. That’s just not how any of this works. The fact that Google’s system had one result, while Yahoo and Microsoft’s had others should cement that there’s no secret bias going on here. Just algorithms being algorithms.

But, of course, you can predict where this is going in today’s silly political world, in which Republican political insiders have to play victim every chance they can get. All last week I saw a few GOP political operatives continually linking to the study and screaming bloody murder about how Google was censoring conservatives and “interfering in the election” (while conveniently saying nothing about Microsoft or Yahoo). Eventually, you had to know that Fox News would pick up the story:

If you can’t see that image, it’s a blaring headline:

Google’s Gmail favors left-wing candidates, sends far more emails from conservatives to spam: study

Hmm. No mention of Yahoo or Outlook. While the article does mention the Yahoo and Outlook results later on in the article, it really plays up the idea that Google is somehow deliberately targeting Republican politicians, which is just laughable if you know anything at all about how spam filters work.

The fact is that spam filters suck and often make mistakes… but also that many, many people treat political mail as spammy, often because it is spammy. I’ve gotten on a few political lists over the last few years and I tend to mark them as spam as I’ve never, ever signed up to be on any such list. To turn this into “evidence” of political bias is utter nonsense.

Similarly, the demands from some that these companies need to expose their spam filtering algorithms is similarly disingenuous. The only one who benefits from those algorithms being revealed are… spammers. They’d love to know how the filtering works to get around it. So, basically, the GOP is now demanding that Google helps spammers spam more people. Incredible.

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Companies: google, microsoft, yahoo

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Comments on “Despite What Fox News Tells You, A New Study Did Not ‘Prove’ That Gmail Is Targeting Conservatives”

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This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Toom1275 (profile) says:


It’s because ide =ntifying as Republican is the equivalemt of wearing a giant neon sign flashing “I’M SLOW AND EASILY LED. PLEASE SCAM ME!”

“No Collusion,” “Left-wing censorship/media bias,” “Legitimate political discourse / the big lie,” “mandates are tyranny,” “Trans women are men,” Alien invasion, “Nazi Ukraine!” “Tax cuts,” “Abortion is murder!” Ivermectin, “Fascist ANTIFA,” crypto/NFT, QAnon/Pizzagate, Parler

There’s a reason that the dumbest lies and scams ever invented find their natural home on primarily one side of the aisle.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re:

There’s a reason that the dumbest lies and scams ever invented find their natural home on primarily one side of the aisle.

Two reasons, actually.

  1. The right-wing mediasphere lacks protections against bullshit.
  2. Conservative Christianity⁠—especially evangelicalism⁠—does its damnedest to keep its adherents uneducated, which leaves said adherents more susceptible to both scams and conspiratorial thinking.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I see you’ve done no research about Christianity, only your skewed version of it based on your own experiences. If you had, you’d know that not every branch of the faith is wary of actual science (you know, that form of study that is meant to be completely unbiased, where no possibility – natural or supernatural – is arbitrarily thrown out, unlike what you call science which in reality is nothing but naturalism). See here for a testable, scientific approach that acknowledges the faith where they work together side-by-side:

Its founder holds not one, but multiple PhD’s, and there are many other accredited scientists who are part of this as well. So please take your inaccurate generalizations elsewhere.

Ian Williams says:

Re: Re: Re:2

You’ve just complexly proven the guy’s point, by showing that you’re uneducated as to what science is and how it works, and also that you’re are in fact one of the victims of a Christian propaganda effort. The inclusion of the supernatural in science is the end goal of a small number advocates of creationism, such as the Discovery Institute. Supernatural explanations are not arbitrarily thrown out, they are thrown out not only because there is no direct evidence of the proposed causal agent, or his mechanism of action, (which often contradicts other known factors) but they also lack predictive power, falsifiability and are not reproducible. One you allow the supernatural -no- explanation can be ruled out, everything is equally plausible because the supernatural can do -anything-, including creating the universe last Tuesday. To paraphrase Sidney Harris’s cartoon, Science asks people who claim a miracle was responsible to be more explicit in step two.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

So tell me, does it make it easier for you to sleep at night to believe that that an unborn child, whose DNA is unique and completely distinct from the mother’s, isn’t human and has no rights? You speak from an idealistic standpoint rather than from having any personal experience, and I doubt you could ever find a single woman who has gone through the procedure who doesn’t feel any guilt or remorse about it. And more are pushed into it than you think, but you don’t seem to care about them. Only protecting your worldview from any sort of challenge.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

*So tell me, does it make it easier for you to sleep at night to believe that that an unborn child, whose DNA is unique and completely distinct from the mother’s, isn’t human and has no rights? *

Yep it’s easy as all fuck for me to sleep. Because once that unborn child fell out of the mother’s crotch, you people will want nothing to do with it.

You’re all in to the point where the mother is left with a child, while the man has absolutely zero accountability.

So yeah, sleep is fine. How do you fuckers sleep at night? It must be maddening not to be sticking your nose in someone else’s decisions for a few hours.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Mifght want to get off that high horse before you hurt yourself

Son I sleep like the unaborted baby of a rape victim who’s mom ended up on heroin due to the trauma of having to be a prostitute because all the “compassionate” conservatives took away all the pre and post natel safety nets because once that slut had her kid shes on her own.

Rico R. (profile) says:

I signed 1 petition from Bernie Sanders back in 2016 opposing the TPP, and now my inbox is flooded with emails from Democratic organizations and candidates. Some emails end up in spam, but most others do not. Even as someone politically liberal, I could do without all the emails. At this point, I just click through all the political emails in my inbox without reading them. But sure, conservatives, complain about being “censored” by big tech because people aren’t willing to read your political emails once they end up in spam.

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PaulT (profile) says:

“many, many people treat political mail as spammy, often because it is spammy”

Any unsolicited email is spam, so if I haven’t deliberately signed up to a particular politician or party’s mailing list it goes in the spam folder where it belongs. Even then, I’m likely clued up enough on my favoured person/party’s positions not to need random emails to remind me to support them, so I’d consider that to be spam as well.

But, this seems to be a good case study as to why certain types live in an alternate reality to the rest of us. There’s nothing necessarily untrue about the headline, but it’s so far out of context and ignores so many additional explanations to get to the headline (which most people stupid enough to follow Fox News will never read past) that it’s also complete fiction.

Also, as usual with cries of “censorship”, it seems nothing is being censored. GMail only deletes its spam mailboxes after 30 days, and no mail filter is perfect. So, it’s good practice to check your spam mail anyway, and it’s on you if you didn’t bother doing that in the 30 day window.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Only our emails matter!

Hmm. No mention of Yahoo or Outlook.

Well of course not, obviously all the democrat emails are stuff no-one would want and are being rightly flagged as spam whereas only a madman/woman wouldn’t want every last piece of republican political communications and therefore any lost to the spam filter are part of Google’s nefarious plot to suppress conservative voices!

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Dan (profile) says:

Once you teach someone, er something, something...

I was always under the impression that these were learning algorithms. The more people that mark something as “spam”, the algorithms learn that it must be spam.

If that is the case, I know two things:

1) It’s not Goggle [et al.] at fault.
2) Conservatives favor outdated mail systems like Yahoo and Outlook.

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That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

“Google’s Gmail favors left-wing candidates, sends far more emails from conservatives to spam”

Could it be all of the caps, and other verbal tricks that mainly appear only in actual spam?
Then remember Google keeps track of what other users mark as spam and that has an effect.
Given the sheer number of right leaning political messages being foisted on people who never signed up for it, I can’t see any reason a filter would learn that messages from this sender are often flagged spam.
Donate now or you’ll be off his nice list!!!

Perhaps if you don’t want to be flagged as spam, stop spamming people?
Its sort of like the problem where the filters kept catching republicans in the filters meant to stop nazi sentiments.
If you don’t behave like a nazi, it won’t flag you as a nazi.

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BernardoVerda (profile) says:

But... this is trivially simple to explain.

The rather more accurate, alternative headline — which of course is the take that FOX “News” would never consider using — would read something like this:

“Google confirms that Right Wing candidates send more spam”

Anonymous Coward says:

I smell a grift

I predict with the monumental success of ‘alt’ social media sites, we’re just a few short reports away from hearing about Trumpmail or Frankmail to combat big tech censoring spam.

What good is freedumb if you can’t freely choose to receive your spam in the same folder as everything else? It’s just big tech censoring all those poor victimized Gmail users who want their computers infected, just as god intended.

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Rocky says:

Re: Re: Re:2

I don’t expect the people who think this is some kind of gotcha to understand that algorithms flagging spam are driven by feedback-loops. It makes it so much easier for them to play the victim and complain about bias because they go out of their way not to learn how technology actually works.

Anonymous Hero says:

Re: Re: Re:4

I’m just pointing out that Tim has a weak argument, and I wish he gave a better one. The article points out two things as facts that don’t add up:

(1) Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo spam filters are not biased.

(2) We don’t know anything about their spam filter algorithms because they are secret.

Rocky says:

Re: Re: Re:5

At no point did Tim actually say the algorithms are unbiased, because they aren’t.

What he said was that it doesn’t really matter because spam-filters are spam-filters and if people keep flagging one type of mail more often as spam, more mail of that type will get caught in the filters.

And if republicans send more mail that are spammy, more of those mails will get flagged as spam – it’s a feed-back loop. What kind of algorithm used isn’t really interesting at all.

What also matters is the political demographic for each service tested, because that determines how much actual mail is sent through them that happen to be political ads of a certain affiliation. Nowhere in this study is it mentioned that they tried to ascertain the prior corpus of these mails that was flagged as spam – because that corpus is the determining factor of any bias.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

“I was hoping for a more substantive counterpoint than “algorithms being algorithms”.”

You had one. No filter is perfect, so if you’re depending on them to tell you what is and isn’t spam without checking the results, that’s on you. Most systems send spam emails to a spam folder instead of deleting straight away, so nothing’s deleted without you having opportunity to check beforehand.

The main complaint here isn’t about algorithms anyway, it’s the fact that when 1/3 of the test subjects show a particular claimed bias, it’s reported as if it’s the only one with bias. That’s worth talking about no matter which side of the aisle you sit on.

Basically – spam is annoying. If you use a spam filter, it will be imperfect and and be biased, because that’s what you ask it to do. If the bias doesn’t fit with your personal bias, you have tools to check and possibly correct this. If you pretend that only one service has a bias, you’re a liar.

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Nemo_bis (profile) says:

Re: Re: SPF usage and other factors

The authors completely neglected to check any of the factors usually associated with deliverability, because they assumed that these big senders would get it right:

As these digital marketing organizations are among the largest in the world, it is highly unlikely that the SFAs would mark emails as spam just because they were sent using one of their SMTP servers. Thus, we do not perform PSM using the IP address of the sender’s SMTP server as a covariate.

That’s a strange assertion. Big newsletters try to have their own IP address to avoid having their reputation harmed by bad senders. It would have been useful to compare responsible senders on both sides.

Curiously, less than half of the emails sent had an SPF record, and over two third of these were from the Democratic party. It would have been useful to compare emails with correct SPF records.

$ cat *json | grep -c “Received-SPF”
$ cat *json | grep “Received-SPF: pass” | grep -Eo “[a-z]+.[a-z]+ ” | sort | uniq -c | sort -nr | head -n 5

Maybe the GOP should use SPF?

John85851 (profile) says:

If your email is spam...

If your email looks spammy, if your email is sent to a 1,000 people at once, and if your email is email is caught by Spam filters, then what is your email?
That’s right- it’s unfairly censored by left-wing tech companies out to stop Republicans from getting elected.

Do they even realize how absurd that sounds? Never mind, of course they don’t! In their word, it’s better to play the victim than to think logically.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Nemo_bis (profile) says:

Alternative title: Google makes it easiest to subscribe to GOP newsletters

The paper also contains this passage:

When a user moves emails from spam to inbox, the spam percentage should decrease because the user is showing interest that such emails should appear in the inbox. The response of Gmail to the S→I interaction follows this intuition while that of Outlook and Yahoo does not.

Fig. 7 shows that after the five S→I interactions, on average, Gmail marks just 5.34% of the right emails as spam

The Fox News narrative is counterproductive, because the GOP is missing an opportunity to fundraise more: it should be telling people to use Google to subscribe to its emails!

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