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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[1]] 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[2] 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

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