The MRC vs. Google: The Bogus Gmail Battle
The Media Research Center has repeatedly misrepresented the results of a study in order to accuse Gmail of being biased against Republican fund-raising emails -- and it even got Republicans to buy into the manufactured outrage.
By Terry Krepel
For months, the Media Research Center has misrepresented a study on email filtering in order to advance its anti-"Big Tech" narrative. Autumn Johnson tried to summarize it in an April 5 post:
Research from N.C. State University indicated that Google’s anti-spam algorithm overwhelmingly labeled emails from right-wing candidates as “spam.” The paper, titled A Peek into the Political Biases in Email Spam Filtering Algorithms During US Election 2020, said Google was biased against the Right, while Microsoft’s Outlook and Yahoo leaned right:
Note that Johnson wouldn't say that Outlook and Yahoo were "biased" against left-leaning candidates, since only conservatives faces "bias" in the MRC's world; only Gmail is "biased." The then proceeded to downplay the bias of Outlook and Yahoo to obsess over Gmail: "Gmail is the most popular email provider in the United States, and users are required to create an account to use the company’s spreadsheet and word document program. Users also need an account to use Google’s photo and document storage drives."
But Johnson also hid one other important related result from the study: When a user does things like read emails, mark them as spam or move them from the spam folder to the inbox, the mail programs learn and the biases largely disappear -- even more so for Gmail than for Outlook or Yahoo.
But who cares about facts when there's a narrative to advance? Brian Bradley embraced it in an April 29 post:
Three powerhouse conservative political groups are pushing the Federal Election Commission to look into alleged Google email censorship.
Bradley buried how other mail services were biased against left-leaning candidates, and completely censored the fact that user preferences pretty much eliminate the bias. Bradley pushed the right-wing narrative again in a May 22 post hyping how Republican officials were latching onto it:
Months ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, Google leadership reportedly ignored GOP senators’ legitimate questions about Gmail’s apparent suppression of conservative political candidates’ emails.
Bradley then lashed out at Politico for reporting the other side of the story, falsely portraying balanced reporting as "playing defense":
Google Chief Legal Officer Kent Walker was among the Google executives who attended, and claimed there’s no bias in how the tech giant deals with spam, according to Politico.
By contrast, Bradley censored the fact that the study found user preferences eliminated the bias and all mention of other mail services "biased" against liberals.
Alexander Hall followed this with a May 24 post parroting Republican Sen. Marco Rubio parroting the narrative. Bradley returned on May 26 to whine that the Washington Post called out right-wingers' dishonesty in promoting the study:
Just days after Politico defended leftist Google from allegations of election interference, The Washington Post attempted to whitewash the results of a university study finding considerable left-leaning bias in Gmail’s spam-filtering algorithm.
Bradley omitted the fact that the Post article also quoted a study co-author pointing out how right-wingers like the MRC have misrepresented the study's results:
“Our study does not make any such conclusion,” Muhammad Shahzad, one of its lead authors, said of Daines’s claim in the group’s first media interview on the topic.
Bradley then tried to reframe things to keep his narrative alive, as if posturing Republican congressmen were more credible than the guy who actually co-wrote the study:
But the core concerns expressed by GOP lawmakers and aides stem from the finding that Gmail’s spam filter skewed against GOP candidates at all, and more so than Outlook’s and Yahoo’s spam filters disadvantaged Democratic Party candidates. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) laid this out in a recent letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, demanding he answer, “Why, in Google’s view, is Gmail’s filtering algorithm bias so much more pronounced than Outlook and Yahoo’s bias?”
It's quite clear that Bradley does not want you to know that the study is much less clear-cut than his narrative has indicated. Indeed, he returned to narrative-advancing hype in a June 15 post touting how "Twenty-seven Senate Republicans led by Sen. John Thune (R-SD) on Wednesday introduced legislation that would ban email providers from using algorithms that mark certain political campaign emails as spam." He again hyped Gmail but buried the anti-liberal bias of other mail operations.
Bradley did the same thing in a June 22 post touting how "Eight House Republicans on Tuesday joined their Senate counterparts in proposing legislation aimed at curbing left-wing political bias in email services’ spam filters." This time, he completely censored the anti-liberal bias of other services and didn't mention that user preferences eliminate the bias. Bradley was even firmer into GOP stenography territory in a July 5 post he declared was an "EXCLUSIVE":
Republican senators are calling on Google to take quicker action after the company recently asked the Federal Election Commission to approve a pilot program to address concerns that Gmail’s spam algorithm disproportionately affects GOP electioneering campaigns.
Yet again, Bradley censored anti-liberal bias at other services and that user preferences eliminates it. No need to let the facts get in the way of a good narrative, right, Brian?
Bradley served up more "EXCLUSIVE" Republican whining over the pilot program in an Aug. 17 post:
Republican politicians knocked Google’s newly approved email plan, suggesting it doesn’t go far enough to ensure GOP fundraising emails reach Gmail users’ inboxes.
Bradley again served as the RNC's stenographer in an Oct. 3 post:
The Republican National Committee told MRC Free Speech America on Monday that Gmail suppressed over 22 million GOP get-out-the-vote and fundraising emails Wednesday through Friday.
But instead of publishing what the researchers actually said, Bradley simply parroted Republican attacks on Google. Bradley also did not provide a link to any RNC data that supports its partisan conclusions, though he embedded two graphs that are too small to see what they are actually of. He also touted how "GOP party leadership is reportedly exploring unspecified 'legal options' to end Google’s 'clear pattern of bias.'"
When the RNC did launch that legal action, Bradley returned as stenographer again in an Oct. 24 post:
The Republican National Committee filed a lawsuit Friday asking a California court to require Google to stop sending hordes of Republican politicians’ campaign emails to Gmail users’ spam folders.
Bradley again misrepresented the results of the NC State study, and he gave space to more right-wing activists. It wasn't until the 14th paragraph of his item that Bradley bothered to include a response from Google:
In a statement Monday to MRC Free Speech America, Google denied any actions to filter emails based on political affiliation.
But that's only two paragraphs of an 18-paragraph article. The rest are spent attacking Google -- ironic given how much energy the MRC expends complaining about alleged bias in other media outlets.
Well, nobody else bought into the bogus anti-Gmail narrative outside the right-wing media bubble, and the MRC was mad about that too. Catherine Salgado huffed in a Jan. 19 post:
The Federal Election Commission just dismissed a complaint from several Republican entities saying Google’s Gmail spam filter was biased in favor of Democrats, constituting a potential in-kind contribution to Democrat campaigns. The evidence, including MRC analysis, seems to indicate the FEC is wrong.
Again, the fact the NC State researchers pointed out that right-wing partisans like the MRC have misrepresented the study's findings was censored. Looks like Salgado has a partisan bias against Google and can't be trusted to be "perfectly honest."
The MRC working hand-in-glove with Republican officials in pushing this anti-Google narrative demonstrates that it's manufacturing a partisan storyline, not engaging in serious "media research" -- and that it should be treated as the partisan actor it is.