How This Works

Someone is Gaming the System

At The Markup, a news org created to do deep dives on technical news story, has found that there are significant differences in the ways that Gmail handles emails from different presidential campaigns.

The Buttigieg andYang campaigns are achieving disproportionate success in getting into the Gmail primary inbox.

The implication of this story is that Google could alter its algorithms to favor one candidate over another.

I do not think that this is a credible concern, at least not yet.

However, it is entirely possible that there are people inside Google who favor one candidate over another who would provide detailed information to the campaigns about how to game the filters.

IMHO, the two campaigns most likely to have a Google insider feeding them information would be those of Buttigieg and Yang, and it is their emails that have achieved the most success in reaching the primary email tab.

It’s called a man on the inside attack:

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

These aren’t poll numbers for the U.S. 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 email from candidates, think tanks, advocacy groups, and nonprofits.

We found that few of the emails we’d signed up to receive —11 percent—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 percent 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 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.

Google communications manager Katie Wattie said in an email that the categories “help users organize their email.”


Google communications manager Katie Wattie said in an email that the categories “help users organize their email.” 


The tabs also serve another purpose: ad inventory. While Gmail does not sell ads in the primary inbox, advertisers can pay for top placement in the social and promotions tabs in free accounts.

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