Everything You Need to Know About Obama's Spam-Gate

Yesterday, David Axelrod sent out a long and boring "viral" email about health care to the White House's email list. Or did he? We're getting a lot of tipsters saying they got it but never signed up for Obama emails.

Fox News' Major Garrett asked White House press secretary Robert Gibbs at yesterday's briefing about claims that Axelrod was spamming people who never asked for White House emails, and was shocked and astounded when Gibbs said the only way to find out if they were on the White House's list was to find out if they were on the White House's list. Which would require turning over their names to the federal government, which would then kill them.

Today, Fox News reported that Garrett has indeed turned over the names of his emailers—with permission—to the White House so they could check them against the list. The story darkly implies that the White House is monitoring your computer right now: "Some wondered if visiting the White House Web site automatically places them on an email distribution list." That is obviously, transparently, and plainly impossible, and the "some" who "wondered" about it are frightened, confused 85-year-olds or paranoid schizophrenics.

We asked you if you had received Axelrod's email, and we got dozens of responses from people who claimed that they had gotten the email but hadn't signed up for it. Some people said they've been getting emails for months from Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, etc. So what's the deal? The first thing to figure out is if the email actually came from the White House, as opposed to a friend who forwarded it or a GOP black ops crew trying to get the Obama=Big Brother meme going, because everyone knows that spam is the forerunner of tyranny. Already, conservatives are trying to turn Axelrod's email into SpamGate.

So we asked everyone who said they got the Axelrod email to send us the header info. Here's an example from one reader, with the recipient's email address redacted:

Everything You Need to Know About Obama's Spam-Gate

This email came from servers owned by GovDelivery, a St. Paul, Minn., firm that describes itself as "the world's leading provider of government-to-citizen communication solutions," and appears to have been contracted by the White House to manage its email blasts. The "account code" is "USEOPWH"—U.S. Executive Office of the President, White House. We called GovDelivery and spoke to CEO Scott Burns, who declined to confirm or deny that his company works with the White House, but said "you've obviously got the header information for that email, so draw whatever inference from that you will."

We'll take that as a yes. And many of the readers who claim to be spam victims provided identical header info. So we're confident that people who at least believe they never signed up for White House emails got Axelrod's.

How does the White House gather its email list? Burns said GovDelivery provides a platform for sending out mass emails, but that "the list acquisition strategy in not in our control."

"We give clients tools to make it easier to sign up for things from their web site," Burns said. GovDelivery's platform is, by default, opt-in—meaning that only people who have signed up get the emails. "But clients can also bring their own lists into the system. When someone buys our platform, it's an opt-in system. But the judgment is the client's if they want to add other addresses or lists." In other words, GovDelivery doesn't control who the emails go to, and if the White House wanted to add addresses of people who didn't sign up, it could have done so.

There are a couple theories as to what's going on here.

1) The most likely is that all the people who say they never signed up are just wrong. "People's memories suck," says Stu Shulman, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts who has studied the politics of mass email. "And people filter their memories through their ideological prisms. If there are 500,000 or 1 million people on the White House list, there will be hundreds who signed up for it and don't remember doing so."

2) The White House is harvesting emails from sensible but questionable sources. The whitehouse.gov privacy policy has this to say about its email list: "[W]e maintain email lists to keep interested, eligible individuals informed about important topics, and individuals must affirmatively request to join them." That's pretty clearly limits the list to people who have asked to be on it. But some of the people we're hearing from say that, while they didn't sign up, they have emailed the White House in the past. The White House may have automatically added those people to its list—a perfectly reasonable thing to do, but also an easy way to needlessly piss people off. Many White House-affiliated sites also have comment forms—Change.gov, for instance, has a discussion forum that requires an email address to log in. If they're pulling addresses from those sources, it appears to be a violation of the privacy policy.

3) The White House has added lists from the Democratic National Committee or Obama's campaign to its list. Gibbs furiously rebutted that notion at yesterday's briefing, we think because it would be illegal to do so (we're checking with legal sources on that point). But many of the people we're hearing from are not Obama fans, so it's unlikely they signed up for his campaign emails. And many insist that they never emailed the White House, either.

4) The White House is pulling email addresses gathered by other federal agencies into its list. All sorts of federal agencies offer email alerts of various kinds. The White House could have merged those lists into its own. But still—many insist they've never signed up for any government email list.

5) The White House is buying spam email lists. This is insane and impossible to believe.

6) This is all a GOP disinformation campaign, and all the people claiming not to have signed up actually did sign up with the intention of presenting themselves as victims of evil Obama-spam. Or, more likely and more deviously, GOP operatives have been buying email lists and using 20-cents-an-hour labor in Indonesia to sign them up, one-by-one, to the White House list in the hopes of painting Obama as a tyrannical emailing monster. This is not as crazy as it sounds, and is in fact kind of brilliant. Burns, the CEO of GovDelivery, says he has been tracking what looks like a deliberate effort to monkeywrench his company's systems. "We've seen a real spike in traffic of people signing up other government institutions to our email lists recently," he says. That wouldn't explain the Obama spam, but it does make clear that it's possible to game the lists.

The main question is: Would the Obama administration be stupid enough to deliberately blast email people who hadn't signed up? Spam is a rage-inducing phenomenon, and to knowingly send out political messages from the White House to people who didn't ask for them was sure to spark foreseeable backlash.

"If they did what people are saying," says Shulman, the political science professor, "It's probably not illegal, but it's stupid. It's bad etiquette and bad policy. But if you think about it—why is Obama president? Because he ran a really tight ship, and used technology better than the other guy. They're really savvy about things like this, so it's hard to believe there was some rogue who started spamming people."

We emailed the White House to ask them how they came up with the list, but haven't heard back. If they ask us for our tipsters' names, we will ask the tipsters for permission to hand them over. Unless, of course, they tell us not to, like this guy just did:

FOR YOUR INFORMATION ONLY
So far, I have received two of Axelrod's emails and am convinced it is because I sent emails to both of my senators protesting the health care bill. Am I now on an enemy's list and is the government able to take over my computer (as reportedly possible when one goes to cars.gov?)

Please do not share my email address with ANYONE (except maybe Major Garrett if he needs it).

I hope this helps any research you are doing in this regard.