Political campaign emails contain dark patterns to manipulate donors, voters


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US political candidates use psychological tricks and dark patterns in their emails to manipulate supporters to donate money and mobilize voters.

In a study published earlier this month, academics from Princeton University said they analyzed more than 100,000 emails sent by candidates in federal and state races as well as Political Action Committees (PACs), Super PACs, political parties, and other political organizations.

The emails were collected as part of a research project that began in December 2019. Emails are still being collected today, with the research team planning to make all the data public after the US fall election cycle.

More than 280,000 emails from more than 3,000 senders were collected to date.

“Our corpus has two orders of magnitude more emails than the largest corpus of election-related emails previously analyzed in the academic literature,” the Princeton researchers said.

But while the full data will be made available in full in November, earlier this month, the research team also published a paper [PDF] containing the results of a preliminary analysis of the first 100,000 emails they collected, from December 2, 2019, up to June 25, 2020.

These days, most campaign emails are akin to spam, so most email users are already familiar with their content and purpose. Most campaigns struggle to get users to even open the emails, let alone read or take action — like sign up for rallies, go vote, or donate funds.

The Princeton research team said the purpose of their research was to identify manipulative tactics and dark patterns used by political campaigns over the past year to get recipients to, at least, open their emails.

Six were identified, researchers said. These included: 

  • Forward referencing or information withholding – Using subject lines like “bumping this for you” or “let’s prove him wrong,” which are generic enough to get users to open the email and investigate.
  • Sensationalism – Emails with classic clickbaity subject lines like “(no!) Mark Kelly SLANDERED!” and “HUGE ANNOUNCEMENT.”
  • Urgency – Emails with countdown timers, fake deadlines, or fake goals, using subject lines and phrases like “April Deadline (via Team Graham)” or “1 huge goal, 1 last chance to help reach it!”
  • Obscured names – Emails were the senders obscured their identity, making it impossible for the recipient to learn who sent the email without opening it first.
  • Ongoing thread – Emails where the sender modified their name into patterns like “John, me (2)” to trick users into thinking they already replied to the email, and this is an ongoing conversation.
  • Abuse of Re: / Fwd: – Emails where senders abused the “Re” and “Fwd” terms in subject lines to trick users into thinking the email was a reply or forwarded message.
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According to the researchers, the typical campaign used at least one of these tactics in about 43% of the emails they sent. Even if campaigns didn’t use these tactics on a regular basis, researchers said that 99% use them at least occasionally.

The Princeton academics said they looked into campaign emails because “manipulative political discourse undermines voters’ autonomy, generates cynicism and thus threatens democracy” and “distorts political outcomes by advantaging those who are skilled at deploying technological tricks, triggering a race to the bottom.”

A website has also been set up where anyone can search through the email corpus, either by sender name or keywords. The website is updated daily with new emails.

“We hope that our corpus will be useful for studying a wide array of traditional political science questions,including how candidates represent themselves to their would-be constituents, how and when campaigns go negative, and what tactics campaigns and organizations use to raise money and mobilize voters,” researchers said.



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