Written by Nick Heer.

U.S. Consulting Firm Targeted Victory Likely Driver of Misguided Spam Filter Bias Bill

Cristiano Lima, Washington Post:

An academic study finding that Google’s algorithms for weeding out spam emails demonstrated a bias against conservative candidates has inflamed Republican lawmakers, who have seized on the results as proof that the tech giant tried to give Democrats an electoral edge.

[…]

That finding has become the latest piece of evidence used by Republicans to accuse Silicon Valley giants of bias. But the researchers said it’s being taken out of context.

[Muhammad] Shahzad said while the spam filters demonstrated political biases in their “default behavior” with newly created accounts, the trend shifted dramatically once they simulated having users put in their preferences by marking some messages as spam and others as not.

Shahzad and the other researchers who authored the paper have disputed the sweeping conclusions of bias drawn by lawmakers. Their plea for nuance has been ignored. Earlier this month, a group of senators introduced legislation to combat this apparent bias. It intends to prohibit email providers from automatically flagging any political messages as spam, and requires providers to publish quarterly reports detailing how many emails from political parties were filtered.

According to reporting from Mike Masnick at Techdirt, it looks like this bill was championed by Targeted Victory, which also promoted the study to conservative media channels. You may remember Targeted Victory from their involvement in Meta’s campaign against TikTok.

Masnick:

Anyway, looking at all this, it is not difficult to conclude that the digital marketing firm that Republicans use all the time was so bad at its job spamming people, that it was getting caught in spam filters. And rather than, you know, not being so spammy, it misrepresented and hyped up a study to pretend it says something it does not, blame Google for Targeted Victory’s own incompetence, and then have its friends in the Senate introduce a bill to force Google to not move its own emails to spam.

I am of two minds about this. A theme you may have noticed developing on this website over the last several years is a deep suspicion of automated technologies, however they are branded — “machine learning”, “artificial intelligence”, “algorithmic”, and the like. So I do think some scrutiny may be warranted in understanding how automated systems determine a message’s routing.

But it does not seem at all likely to me that a perceived political bias in filtering algorithms is deliberate, so any public report indicating the number or rate of emails from each political party being flagged as spam is wildly unproductive. It completely de-contextualizes these numbers and ignores decades of spam filters being inaccurate from time to time for no good reason.

A better approach for all transparency around automated systems is one that helps the public understand how these decisions are made without playing to perceived bias by parties with a victim complex. Simply counting the number of emails flagged as spam from each party is an idiotic approach. I, too, would like to know why many of the things I am recommended by algorithms are entirely misguided. This is not the way.

By the way, politicians have a long and proud history of exempting themselves from unfavourable regulations. U.S. congresspeople are insider trading laws virtually do not apply, even with regulations to ostensibly rein it in. In Canada, politicians excluded themselves from unsolicited communications laws by phone and email. Is it any wonder why polls have showed declining trust in institutions for decades?