Google Built a Spam Backdoor for Republicans — And They’re Not Using It

With only weeks left until Election Day, the Republican National Committee is escalating its war over Gmail’s spam filters in what critics view as a bad-faith attempt to bully Google into spamming user inboxes.

The GOP has long complained about technical biases, but the latest battle is directly hitting the organization’s fundraising apparatus. In response, Google has launched a controversial program that allows campaign committees to effectively opt out of spam filters — a huge concession to mounting Republican political pressure. But roadside Reports show that the RNC has not taken advantage of the program and made little effort to change core practices that could lead to their emails being labeled as spam.

A source familiar with the case has confirmed that The edge that, nearly a month after the launch of the pilot, the RNC has not joined or even applied for the program, even though the party remains politically and possibly legal press against Google. The RNC did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding the committee’s decision to abstain from the pilot program.

The decision is notable for the intense pressure placed on Google to find a way to protect Republican fundraising emails. The concerns came to a head in March when North Carolina State University published a study that found that Gmail’s spam filtering algorithms disproportionately flag messages sent by conservative political senders. Taking advantage of the findings of the investigation, Republicans launched a party-wide press campaign against Google, accusing the company of deliberately silencing conservative messages and limiting their ability to raise money online. (In May, the study authors claimed their findings were misinterpreted by the GOP.)

This partisan outcry led top Republican lawmakers to convene Google executives for closed-door meetings over the summer to discuss the issue. In June, Senator John Thune (R-SD) went as far as introducing an accountbacked by GOP heavyweights like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), essentially banning email providers from filtering spam messages from verified political senders.

“Eligible committees that will meet strict security requirements and best practice standards can now register to participate in this pilot program approved by the Federal Elections Commission”

Finally, in September, Google succumbed to the pressure by rolling out a new pilot program that would allow candidates, political party committees, and other verified political groups to bypass Gmail’s spam filter. Democratic Party officials and strategists complained about the move, arguing that the program only encouraged Republicans to continue using “deceptive fundraising tactics.” But if the RNC refused to even apply for the program, it suggests the problem goes deeper than a supposedly biased spam filter.

Google was asked for comment and declined to comment on the details of the RNC’s claims, but interpreted the anti-spam program as both limited and tentative. “Eligible committees that will meet strict safety requirements and best practice standards can now register to participate in this pilot program approved by the Federal Elections Commission,” Google spokesman José Castañeda said in a statement on Thursday. “We expect to start the pilot with a small number of campaigns from both parties and will test during this election period whether these changes improve the user experience and provide more certainty to senders.”

Specifically, in the program’s original terms, Google said it would remove 5 percent of the time any participant whose emails are consistently marked as spam. Participating groups must also meet certain security and bulk sender best practice standards. If the RNC felt it could not meet those standards, it could explain why the committee decided not to apply.

Still, the frequency and content of the RNC’s fundraising emails may conflict with many of these standard best practices that participants should follow, Democratic strategists and fundraising specialists said. The edge last week. Civic Shout CEO Josh Nelson specifically pointed to the intimidating language of recent fundraising emails, often sent more than 10 times a day. “That kind of volume, combined with the nasty and menacing tone of the message, will almost certainly offend supporters and lead to delivery problems,” Nelson said.

“That kind of volume, combined with the nasty and menacing tone of the message, will almost certainly offend supporters and lead to deliverability issues”

The number of emails sent by the RNC to individuals has steadily increased as midterm exams approach, according to data collected by the archive of political emails and viewed by The edge. During 2020, the organization sent only one or two emails a day, but by the end of the following year, it was common to receive more than 10 emails in one day and this is still increasing. For October 2022, the data shows that 80 different fundraising calls were sent in the first seven days of the month.

The content of the RNC’s messages can also appear to be spam, using misleading subject lines, excessive punctuation, and intimidating language around deadlines to encourage donors to send money immediately upon receipt of the message. As part of the Jan. 6 hearings, congressional investigators argued that former President Donald Trump raised over $250 million for an election defense fund to undo the 2020 election results that never existed. Although the money went to Trump and not the RNC, the committee often structures its emails in the same style as the Trump campaign.

For some Republican strategists, Google’s pilot program creates more problems than it solves. “I view Google’s verified sender program as more of an exercise in PR than actually addressing the problems or concerns of political email senders,” said Eric Wilson, a GOP strategist and former digital director of Senator Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign. in 2016, in an interview last week. “You bypass spam once, and then everyone who receives that email, whether they’ve signed up for it or not, gets a big button that says, do you want to unsubscribe?”

Joining the program so late in the election cycle could be a risky move for Republicans, especially as they try to fill their war chests after an unforeseen slowdown in small dollar donors over the summer. For GOP campaign weapons like the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the program itself is “unacceptable.” In a draft letter to Google in Augustthe NRSC argued that campaigns should be able to “reset” their email domains to “restore their email reputation and send emails to Gmail boxes.”

In a Fox News story last week, the RNC claimed that Google suppressed more than 22 million fundraising and voting emails in September alone. In that same story, the RNC also confirmed that it only updated its “segmentation to account for recency of clicks, petition signature and donation” post last month. Email segmentation is standard for both political and commercial email programs, taking into account how often a recipient interacts with messages before sending the email to them. (The RNC has not responded to requests for comment to clarify its email segmentation practices.)

“It is definitely standard practice and it has been going on for over a decade to suppress what we call the ‘inactive people’. They may not have gotten around to opting out yet, but they’re not really interested anymore,” said Will Bunnett, director of digital company Clarify Agency, of the practice. “If the RNC just started doing that, they’re more than a decade behind.”