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The Republican Project to Break Your Email Account

The party’s massive—and misguided—spam operation.
December 12, 2022
The Republican Project to Break Your Email Account
(The Bulwark / Midjourney)

A few days before the Senate runoff election in Georgia between Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker, the Republican National Committee sent around what would, in a sane world, qualify as an exceedingly peculiar email. The message gave the recipient a “DEADLINE” of “1 HOUR” to contribute money to a “Flip Georgia Fund.” Those who met the “DEADLINE” by parting with at least $25 in the “NEXT HOUR” would obtain a “3400% IMPACT INCREASE” for their trouble. It was “going to take a TEAM effort,” the email said, to “punt Raphael Warnock from the Senate and SAVE America.”

This Republican fundraising pitch, and the many others that it resembles, raise uncomfortable questions. What is the stupidest possible fundraising appeal that would still succeed in separating a modest, hard-working Republican from his money? What sort of fishy language (“impact increase”) or preposterous assertion (“3400%”) would it take to alert a critical mass of recipients to the possibility that they’re about to be swindled? Why is the GOP, once the self-styled party of wholesome American morality, unabashedly bamboozling its supporters? Why is it making claims that, if made by a common retailer, would run a heavy risk of being punished as deceptive trade practices? And is there any limit to what it might try? Is there any trick that the Republican party would be too embarrassed to inflict on its most benighted and vulnerable followers?

The GOP sends many emails—often more than a dozen a day—to “friends” and “patriots.” If you have the misfortune to receive these appeals, you know that they can come whether you ask for them or not, that they can keep coming after you ask that they stop, and that the answer to the question about the existence of a limit, a bottom, a slimy depth that the GOP would not plumb for a dollar, is probably “no.”

During the 2020 election, Republican fundraising emails regularly contained pre-checked boxes, often buried beneath many lines of bold and all-caps text, that doubled a contributor’s payment, or that made the payment automatically recur (sometimes weekly), or that did both. Largely thanks to tactics like these, the Trump campaign wound up issuing $122 million in refunds. (The pertinent digital consultancy kept its cut—around four percent—of these returned donations.) After Trump lost, his outfit collected $250 million for an “Official Election Defense Fund” that did not exist. And these days, almost all of the GOP’s pleas for cash feature apocalyptic rhetoric (“the fate of America is in your hands”), bogus deadlines (“I only have until midnight tonight to hit my goal”), make-believe donation matches (3,400 percent is not the highest one out there), juvenile guilt trips (“If you UNCHECK this box, we will have to tell Trump you’re a DEFECTOR”), and various other deceits and histrionics. As Tim Miller puts it, the Republican party “has turned into one big off-shore call center trying to trick granny into handing over their credit card number to pay for some phony life insurance.”

In fairness to the GOP, the Democrats, too, send misleading emails. But the Republican operation doesn’t just do bad things; it does bad things badly. Donald Trump’s total refund amount for the 2020 election was nearly six times higher than Joe Biden’s. And it appears that Republicans’ emails tend to land in spam folders more often than Democrats’. And the evidence strongly suggests that this apparent divide exists because, generally speaking, the Republicans don’t know what they’re doing.

Frustrated by all the GOP spam in his email account, conservative radio host Erick Erickson called around to investigate. Democratic groups, he learned, are usually careful not to send emails too often, not to send individual emails in overly large recipient batches, and not to share email lists across entities. This is not how some Republican groups operate, as Erickson himself could attest. His article on the subject (“GOP Consultants: Stop Blaming Others For the Problems You Created”) includes screenshots of his spam folder. It is filled with GOP emails, many arriving mere minutes apart, making the usual announcements (“we’re facing an unprecedented crisis”; “the liberal mob has gone too far”; “the radical left is plotting to indoctrinate an entire generation”). Erickson reached the obvious conclusion: “GOP consultant organizations” are “engaged in a spam operation, which naturally trips the switches at companies monitoring email.”

Rather than reflect on their mistakes and seek to mend their vendors’ email stewardship (the better, alas, to dupe the elderly and the mentally infirm), Republican leaders have taken to doing what the modern Republican party does best: cry and pout.

In March, a team of computer scientists at North Carolina State University published a paper finding that Republican fundraising emails are shunted to Gmail’s spam folders more often than Democratic ones. The researchers did not consider whether Republican groups’ poor email hygiene accounted for the disparity, and they found that the disparity disappears when a user reveals her preferences by flagging or unflagging just a handful of messages. Needless to say, Republicans overlooked these details. Sen. Steve Daines declared in an op-ed that the study “unmistakably exposed Big Tech’s most egregious attempt to tilt the scale toward left-wing candidates.”

In May, a group of GOP senators berated Google’s chief legal officer in a private meeting. “If you mail a letter, you expect it to be delivered,” Sen. Chuck Grassley is said to have complained. “That’s what should happen!” According to the Washington Post, the palm for greatest show of outrage went to Sen. Marco Rubio, who groused that all his emails were being blocked, only to discover later that his operatives had failed to follow the basic steps that bulk-use email accounts must take to authenticate themselves. In the wry words of the Post, “many lawmakers relayed personal anecdotes that revealed limited understanding of how Gmail works.”

At a June meeting with Google CEO Sundar Pichai, Sen. Rick Scott, chair of the Senate Republicans’ campaign committee, demanded a “higher deliverability” rate—that is, for more GOP spam to reach people’s inboxes. The same month, RNC chair Ronna McDaniel accused Google of “systematically attack[ing] the RNC’s email fundraising”—that is, by not letting more GOP spam reach people’s inboxes. Then, led by Sen. John Thune, more than twenty Republican senators introduced a bill called the Political BIAS (short for “Bias in Algorithm Sorting”) Emails Act. This would bar “an operator of an email service” from using “a filtering algorithm to apply a label to an email sent . . . from a political campaign,” meaning that users would need to manually flag emails from political campaigns as spam. The bill should have been named the PRO SPAM Act, because it would ensure—you guessed it—that more GOP spam reaches people’s inboxes. It cannot be said too often that these politicians are rallying around the banner of spam.

Yet Google caved in to the pressure. It created a pilot program for emails from political candidates, parties, and committees to bypass Gmail’s spam filters. Google even went so far as to seek approval for its plan from the Federal Election Commission. Its petition drew thousands of public comments protesting the program’s impetus (whining by politicians ignorant of technology) as well as its effect (making the severe problem of spam even worse). Only one commissioner voted against the plan, on the grounds that the scheme could distribute what amount to in-kind political contributions. (It pretty clearly wouldn’t—for one thing, it’s open on equal terms to both parties.) And so the agency—albeit with some nods to the validity of the commenters’ outrage—gave its blessing.

That same day, Republican leaders issued a letter spurning Google’s attempt to address the problem (the “problem,” alas, being the GOP’s unquenched desire to shove more spam in more faces). Under the program, bad actors would have to clean up their sketchy practices: Any participant whose emails are marked by users as spam at a rate of more than five percent would be removed. Perhaps the Republicans found this prospect unpalatable.

Or perhaps they decided that their grievance has become too useful to discard. Agreeing to collaborate with a company that’s bending over backward to grant you special privileges doesn’t make for a splashy press release, a lot of media headlines, or an appearance on cable news. But filing a lawsuit—if you’re a major political party—can do all of those things. In October, the RNC sued Google in California federal court.

The party’s complaint is on-brand: It leaps to conclusions, wallows in victimhood, trades in paranoia, and projects the GOP’s own rampant bad faith onto others. The RNC’s emails, the reader is meant to understand, convey “important information” and help “build communities.” The RNC’s outreach is being thwarted by a firm that “discriminate[s] against” it because of its “political affiliation and views.” In a phenomenal display of cheek, the complaint submits that this mistreatment continues “despite the RNC’s best efforts to work with Google.” The first count invokes a California common carrier law last amended in the 1870s. At times the RNC appears to insist that Google deliver into inboxes every email the RNC sends.

The lawsuit’s weightiest allegation is that, toward the end of each month, Gmail abruptly starts directing almost all RNC emails to the spam folder. Fine: It’s possible that if this has been occurring, it is the product of a short-sighted and idiotic plot to jab a political party in the eye by, as the RNC would have it, “intentionally sending critical RNC emails to the spam folder because it’s the RNC sending them.” But that’s by no means “the only reasonable inference,” as the RNC contends. In fact, it’s not a reasonable inference at all. The RNC’s admission, in its complaint, that the end of the month “is historically when [its] fundraising is most successful” is a clue.

What might be happening, around the end of the month, to cause the GOP’s spam-filter hit rate to surge? Maybe, just maybe, it’s something to do with messages like this one:

Or this one:

Or this one:

It seems rather probable that, confronted with these end-of-month maneuvers to share “important information” and “build communities,” a neutral spam filter might snap into action.

Normal human beings dislike spam and disapprove of those who distribute it. At first glance, therefore, it is surprising to see the GOP construct a cause out of brazenly and relentlessly sending emails that may as well say “RACKET” or “PONZI SCHEME” in the subject line. Yet here we are. House Republicans’ “Big Tech, Censorship, & Data Task Force” recently announced that one of its top priorities is to “crack down on political bias in email algorithms.” On second thought, you might grant that the GOP seems to know its intended audience. In banking that its supporters will fail to grasp its underlying goal—to distribute more spam—the party is relying on the same childlike credulity that causes some of those individuals to perk up at the chance of a “3400% IMPACT INCREASE.”

Under Donald Trump, the GOP doubled down on being a party that disdains experts and denigrates expertise. Being competent was out; being a “fighter” was in. There are immediate consequences for a party that embraces such an approach. Your lawyers and politicians hold a press conference at Four Seasons Total Landscaping; they apologize for insurrectionists; and they tap-dance around a call to “terminate” the Constitution. But there are long-term consequences as well. A party whose unofficial motto is “But he fights!” will find itself unpopular with the educated. A party that’s unpopular with the educated will find itself excluded from elite institutions. And a party that’s excluded from elite institutions will find itself unpopular with the young.

Next thing you know, your base is something very like a cult; your intelligentsia, or what passes for it, is enamored with fringe ideas like Catholic integralism and what’s “based” online; and you’ve tarnished your image with the next generation. In last month’s midterm elections, young people voted in droves, and they voted for Democrats by a margin not seen before Trump. The current crop of college students is not going to help a toxic, belligerent GOP win elections, never mind send emails correctly. Republicans deserve this rebuff from our future lawyers, scientists, and programmers, and it could be some time before they become respectable enough to cease deserving it.

In a recent article for National Review titled “Never Again,” Ramesh Ponnuru gamely sets forth the case against Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign. Yet one “must admit,” Ponnuru feels compelled to state, that “conservatives’ alliance with Trump delivered important benefits.” Well, conservatives may have received benefits, but it remains impossible to say whether they benefited. The extraordinary bill for that “alliance with Trump” is still coming due. Viewed within that calculation, the GOP’s inept digital operation is just a rounding error, as is the party leadership’s cynical bid to defend it.

Corbin Barthold

Corbin Barthold is internet policy counsel at TechFreedom. Twitter: @corbinkbarthold.