Continuing research on leaked emails and disinformation

Some surprising news for those who spent the past year listening to me complain about writing my honors thesis: it’s time for round two!

Thanks to the initiative and support of Professor Francis Fukuyama, I’ll be spending some time in the coming year revisiting the research I pursued as an honors student with the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. Funding comes courtesy of the Knight Foundation, and my findings will eventually be made available in a report written for Stanford’s Project on Democracy and the Internet.

The thesis which inspired this project was an exploration of how leaked emails (like WikiLeaks’ publication of John Podesta’s inbox) impact online audiences and the formation of political beliefs. Through use of a randomized survey experiment, I found evidence to suggest that people tend to view the contents of leaked emails as more credible than other anonymously sourced forms of information. This, despite the reality that such emails can be difficult if not impossible to verify, are easily faked or manipulated, and have anecdotally served as the basis for potent disinformation in the past.

I’m inspired to revisit this research in large part because it offers a way to address some unexamined challenges facing American (and global) democracy in the digital age. Looking ahead, disclosures similar to the Podesta and DNC leaks of 2016 seem likely to figure prominently in our politics, and recent developments in Europe suggest that the possibility for even more sophisticated incursions is just around the corner. It also doesn’t take much consideration to conclude that American society is still extremely vulnerable to such manipulation.

When it comes to leaked emails, I’m afraid that the lessons of 2016 have not yet been learned, and won’t be until their impact is studied and discussed more widely. My sole hope is that my efforts might engender further research and consideration for what looks to be a growing and unresolved threat to democratic practice in the digital age.