Republicans File FEC Complaint Against Google Over ‘Unfairly Shaping the Political Playing Field’

Republicans File FEC Complaint Against Google Over ‘Unfairly Shaping the Political Playing Field’
The Google app logo is seen on a smartphone in this picture illustration taken on Sept. 15, 2017. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)
Gary Bai

As candidates ready themselves for the 2022 midterm elections, Republicans are demanding the Federal Election Commission (FEC) investigate Google on allegations of inherent political bias against Republican candidates embedded in the search engine’s algorithms.

On April 27, the Republican National Committee (RNC), National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), and National Republican Senate Committee (NRSC) filed a joint complaint with the FEC to investigate the claims made by researchers at North Carolina State University (NCSU) that Gmail’s algorithm “makes it much harder for Republicans to reach their supporters” than Democrats and stifles the fundraising efforts of Republicans.

The Republican groups said that this bias significantly impacted the party’s fundraising and outreach efforts, with potential costs running at over a billion.

“This is a financially devastating example of Silicon Valley tech companies unfairly shaping the political playing field to benefit their preferred far-left candidates,” said NRSC Chairman Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, and NRCC Chairman Tom Emmer in an April 27 statement announcing the complaint.
“[The NCSU study] has uncovered an even more egregious example of Big Tech’s collusion with the Democrat Party that I wanted all of you to be aware of,” Scott wrote to Senate Republicans in an April 26 memo. “It’s affected every Republican campaign in the country, including every member of this caucus.”

Gmail’s Alleged Bias

The NCSU research project, titled “A Peek into the Political Biases in Email Spam Filtering Algorithms During US Election 2020,” studied the levels of political bias across different email services.

The researchers said their project was the first study “that extensively explores the political biases” in spam filtering algorithms. As a part of the study, the researchers created more than 100 email accounts on different email services and subscribed to political candidates from both the Republican and Democratic parties.

In analyzing the 310,000 emails they collected from May through November 2020, the researchers observed a “worrying” phenomenon where all of the email services they examined in their experiments had “quite a noticeable bias.” Yet, Google’s bias was the worst, they said.

In particular, the study found Google’s email service to have “retained the majority of left-wing candidate emails in inbox (< 10.12% marked as spam) while sent the majority of right-wing candidate emails to the spam folder (up to 77.2% marked as spam).”

Further, the study showed that Google’s email service exhibited a substantially higher degree of political bias against Republicans than other email providers such as Microsoft and Yahoo.

“Gmail marked 59.3% more emails from the right candidates as spam compared to the left candidates, whereas Outlook and Yahoo marked 20.4% and 14.2% more emails from left candidates as spam compared to the right candidates, respectively,” the study found.

This bias against Republicans, according to researchers from NCSU’s Department of Computing Science, was increasingly apparent leading up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

“[T]he percentage of emails marked by Gmail as spam from the right-wing candidates grew steadily as the election date approached while the percentage of emails marked as spam from the left-wing candidates remained about the same,” the researchers found.

In response to NCSU’s findings, Google, in a statement to The Epoch Times, said the company has “debunked” the suggestion that political affiliation affects mail classifications, a claim that has ”surfaced periodically from across the political spectrum, for many years.”

“Mail classifications in Gmail automatically adjust to match Gmail users’ preferences and actions,” a Google spokesperson said in an email.

“Gmail users can move messages to spam, or to any other category,” they added. “Gmail automatically adjusts the classifications of particular emails according to these user actions.”

However, the NCSU researchers already tried to account for this effect by reading all emails they collected—hence demonstrating to Gmail’s algorithm that the user is interested in emails from both the Republican and Democratic parties—and moving all emails from the spam folder to the inbox.

Yet the study found that Gmail still “maintains its left-leaning,” but not as strongly as when this action wasn’t applied.

Impact on Republican Fundraising and Outreach

Extrapolating the results of the NCSU study, Scott in his memo contended that Gmail’s algorithmic bias has directly impacted Republicans’ fundraising efforts with missed opportunities costing up to $1.5 billion dollars.

“In 2019 and 2020, conservatives raised $737 million on WinRed from Gmail users. If $737 million was raised in response to Gmail solicitations, and only 32% of Gmail users actually received our emails, that would mean the remaining 68% of Gmail users blocked from receiving our emails could have contributed up to an additional $1.5 billion that could have gone to support Republican candidates and defeat the Democrats,” Scott said in the memo, citing the NCSU study.

Moreover, the senator noted that Gmail could impact election results by blocking emails from the Republican Party sent to residents of states where high-profile races happen.

“The Republican party has over 490,000 Gmail addresses from Arizona residents. If 68% are being marked as spam, we will potentially not reach 333,000 voters on Gmail,” Scott said. “The last US Senate race in AZ was decided by 79,000 votes.”

“This is without a doubt Left wing Democrat voter suppression from Big Tech,” he added.

In conjunction with the efforts of his party, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) has requested that Google take “immediate corrective action” in response to NCSU’s findings and make sure its algorithms do not “dictate” election outcomes.

“As the researchers put it, this is “rather worrying” because it reveals that Google’s algorithm can alter the ‘outcomes of an election,” the lawmaker said to Google CEO Sundar Pichai in a letter on April 27. “I am particularly alarmed by this pattern because political dice-loading is nothing new for your company.”

“Preserving the integrity of the 2022 elections demands no less,” Hawley said.

This article has been updated to include a response from Google.