Hacking the discourse: Leaked emails, transparency, and disinformation – working paper

In scholarly and popular discourse, leaks have long been associated with transparency, but their potential as a source of disinformation has gone largely unexamined. The turmoil of the 2016 U.S. presidential election cast doubt on leaks’ association with the truth by demonstrating the potentially disorienting impact of leaked emails on political knowledge and discourse. Nonetheless, the dynamics of this disruption remain poorly understood. Through an online experiment, I find that individuals perceive leaked emails as generally more credible than other forms of anonymously sourced political information. I contextualize this finding within the general understanding that leaks are just as pliable to the spread of doubt and disinformation as they are to the cause of transparency. Looking ahead, disclosures similar to the 2016 leaks are likely to figure prominently in American politics, particularly in the context of future elections. Whether these future leaks are committed in the name of transparency or disinformation, their impact on democratic practice will ultimately be determined by the reaction of their audience — journalists, politicians, and voters — who must decide whether and to what extent their contents can be trusted.