Thesis Christ: Russian Disinformation in the 2016 Election

Poli Sci Major Christopher Barclay Talks about His Research

Political science major Christopher Barclay ‘22 has spent a lot of time thinking about the election of Donald Trump in 2016. In his thesis, Barclay explores some of the factors that made that victory possible. He plans to focus on the massive disinformation operation that Russian operatives used to influence voters in Trump’s favor during the years leading up to the election.

Photo Courtesy of Christophy Barclay

Barclay seeks to break down what happened leading up to the 2016 election, the political and psychological reasons why policy makers weren’t prepared for the attack, what policy makers were thinking before the election, why Russia’s attack wasn’t countered, and what (from a foreign policy perspective) allowed for this campaign to occur. In short, he plans to parse out what happened, why, and draw some conclusions about what can be done now.

He plans to include information from news articles written at the time, texts written before the 2016 election by intelligence community staff and policy makers about information warfare, texts written afterward (such as the Mueller report), and interviews with high-level intelligence officers and scholars on the topic in his research. 

Barclay’s thesis is driven by several intersecting interests. First, he has always been fascinated by American diplomacy and international relations. Secondly, he has, over the past several years, committed himself to his passion project of learning the Russian language, which stems from an appreciation and interest in Russian culture and politics. Lastly, Barclay came to Reed at a point in history wherein American politics were rocked by the election of Donald Trump. This transformative time pushed Barclay to think about politics as they relate to polarization more specifically. 

Several Reed professors in Barclay’s major and minor departments supported and encouraged him throughout his time at Reed. He said that Assistant Professor of Russian Naomi Caffee “has always supported me with my career, ambitions, and life goals in general.” Associate Professor of Political Science Alexander Montgomery is Barclay’s thesis advisor and has been an invaluable resource in helping him to focus and narrow the scope of his thesis, and Barclay also emphasized the support that Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science Paul Manson has provided. 

Personal experience also played a role in Barclay’s choice of topic. He explained that he was lucky enough to attend DEFCON 29 (one of the largest hacker conventions in the world) in Las Vegas with his brother, who works in information security. While there, he attended a policy panel with several prominent experts in the cyber security and foreign diplomacy fields, including the U.S. government’s first cyber-diplomat, Christopher Painter. While Barclay was impressed with the expertise in the room, he was frustrated that there was no strong answer to the question of how to deal with information warfare and cyber security. This was in part what inspired Barclay to dive deeper into research on what happened in the 2016 election in addition to possible solutions. His thesis is an attempt to break down the different arguments made at that panel, and perhaps answer the big question: what do we do now? 

Barclay has worked hard over the course of his time at Reed toward ambitious goals. Ideally, he is interested in pursuing a career in diplomacy working as a foreign service officer. However, he is realistic about the chances of landing such a sought-after position. Regardless, he intends to work in international politics in some capacity. Barclay expressed a deep passion and commitment to solving global problems and is excited to begin a career doing just that.

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