Profile | Nathaniel Persily

Co-Director of the Stanford Cyber Policy Center and the James B. McClatchy Professor of Law at Stanford Law School

When he moved to Stanford from Columbia Law School in 2013, Professor Persily refocused his scholarly energies toward the challenges that the internet and digital technologies pose for democracy.  “At the time, the utopian view of the internet as a liberation technology was still widely shared,” Persily says. “Digital campaigning and microtargeting evoked images of small donor fundraising and the ‘Jedi Masters’ in the Obama campaigns.”

“All of that changed after the 2016 election,” says Persily.

Nathaniel Persily
Prior to the election, though, Persily was one of the first to consider the impact of new digital technologies on the regulation of campaigns. In The American Interest, Persily published “The Campaign Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” which explained why the internet revolution turned private platforms, like Facebook and Google, into the primary regulators of campaign advertising and expression.  Then existing regulatory regime, which was predicated on television as the chief medium of political advertising, was unprepared for the digital transformation already underway.

Along with Francis Fukuyama, the Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and Robert Reich, a professor of political science who also directs the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, Persily launched the Program on Democracy and the Internet (or PDI) with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.  That program, now part of the Cyber Policy Center, focuses on all the issues concerning the digital revolution’s impact on elections and democratic governance.   Through research, teaching, and public engagement, PDI seeks to influence policy and thinking about digital democracy around the world.

The range of issues was initially put forth by Persily in a widely-cited 2017 publication, “Can Democracy Survive the Internet?” Drawing on the lessons learned in the 2016 Presidential campaign, Persily explained how the internet accelerated the decline of intermediary institutions, such as the professional media and political parties, and facilitated the rise of populist nationalism.  Although the internet was not primarily to blame, the technology was itself a populist medium and therefore tailor-made for the worldwide resurgence of this ideology. 

Persily expanded upon these themes for the framing paper for the Kofi Annan Commission on Elections and Democracy in the Digital Age, “The Internet’s Challenge to Democracy.”  That Commission, which was run out of PDI and included as commissioners four former Presidents and Prime Ministers, examined the implication of digital technologies for democracy, particularly in the Global South.  

These themes are further explored in his co-edited volume, Social Media and Democracy: The State of the Field and Prospects for Reform (Cambridge Press, 2020).  The book sets forth what is known about online disinformation, hate speech, polarization, political advertising, and changes in the media landscape.  It also purposely includes chapters on policy reforms, with the goal of educating policy makers about the empirics of the online information ecosystem and informing empiricists about the ongoing policy debates.  It concludes with an admonition for greater researcher access to platform data, something that Persily has fought for as co-chair of Social Science One, a program that seeks to make Facebook data available to the world’s research community.  

Persily has been awarded Carnegie and Guggenheim Fellowships for his work on the internet and democracy, and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  He received a B.A. and M.A. in political science from Yale (1992); a J.D. from Stanford (1998) where he was President of the Stanford Law Review, and a Ph.D. in political science from U.C. Berkeley in 2002.  Persily co-directs the Cyber Policy Center with Dan Boneh, the Rajeev Motwani Professor in the School of Engineering and Professor of Electrical Engineering.

Nathaniel Persily is Co-Director of the Stanford Cyber Policy Center and the James B. McClatchy Professor of Law at Stanford Law School, with appointments in the departments of Political Science, Communication, and FSI.  Professor Persily’s scholarship and legal practice focus on American election law or what is sometimes called the “law of democracy,” which addresses issues such as voting rights, political parties, campaign finance, redistricting, and election administration. He has served as a special master or court-appointed expert to craft congressional or legislative districting plans for Georgia, Maryland, Connecticut, New York, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.  He also served as the Senior Research Director for the Presidential Commission on Election Administration.