To Gmail, Black Lives Matter emails are ‘promotions’

As protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement continue around the United States, Gmail is treating emails from advocacy and political groups referring to racial justice issues like marketing emails.

The Markup analyzed hundreds of emails sent to a test Gmail account from more than 200 candidates and organizations from across the political spectrum from whom we’d signed up to receive communications. Of the emails referring to racial justice received since George Floyd was killed in May, Gmail sent seven in 10 to the less-visible “promotions” tab, which the company says is for “deals, offers, and other marketing emails.”

We also analyzed 22 emails we received from eight racial justice groups over 10 days starting on June 19 and found Gmail sent nine in 10 to the promotions tab. The groups were: The Bail Project, Black Lives Matter, Color of Change, Justice for George NYC, NAACP, NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Reclaim the Block, and the Youth Justice Coalition.

Emails treated like marketing included:

  • An email from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund asking for donations in honor of Juneteenth.
  • An email from MoveOn.org, with the subject line “Celebrate Juneteenth by declaring that #BlackLivesMatter,” that directed people to online and in-person protest activities “to #DefendBlackLives and end the systems that seek to penalize and brutalize Black people.”
  • An email from Planned Parenthood, with the subject line “What you can do right now for Black lives,” that encouraged people to join a Facebook Live town hall on anti-racism, sign a petition demanding the firing of the officer who killed Breonna Taylor and the other officers present, support voter registration efforts of Black Lives Matter, and donate to bail funds. The email also directed Black people to take care of themselves and non-Black people to educate themselves about racial justice.
  • An email from the progressive advocacy organization Courage California urging people to “Show Up for Black Lives” and directing people to a blog post outlining actions to take to protest white supremacy and police brutality.
  • An email from Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) calling for accountability for George Floyd’s killing and urging donations to the NAACP, and another about bills addressing racial justice.
  • An email from Color of Change urging members to demand the defunding of the Minneapolis Police Department over the killing of George Floyd, and another circulating a petition for criminal charges against the officer who killed Rayshard Brooks.

In fact, Gmail categorized all 18 emails sent by Color of Change, a nonprofit that advocates for Black equality, as promotions.

“People across the country are looking to racial justice groups like Color of Change to keep them informed and provide opportunities to create change,” said Evan Feeney, the group’s campaign director. “That Google is treating these messages the same as a coupon from a store that you signed up for their mailing list that one time is absurd.”

Gmail’s categorization of racial justice emails mirrors an investigation published by The Markup in February that found Gmail sent about half of all political emails to the promotions tab. Since May 25, Gmail sent both political emails and racial justice emails to promotions about 70 percent of the time.

Gmail is the most popular free email program in the world, with an estimated 43 percent of the market, according to the email marketing firm Litmus. Gmail claims to have 1.5 billion active email addresses, so its choices have an outsized effect on which messages reach people.

In an email, Google spokesperson Brooks Hocog declined to comment but pointed to one of the statements the company sent to The Markup for the story published earlier this year.

“In addition to user input, machine learning, to a lesser extent, is also used to classify emails,” the statement said. “Types of email that might make it into the Promotions tab include calls-to-action, marketing newsletters and offers or coupons. This approach applies to all emails that fit the promotion classification, regardless of industry, affiliation, etc.”