Information flow can reveal dirty deeds

Analysis of Enron e-mails reveals structure of corrupt networks

By Rachel Ehrenberg


HUB-AND-SPOKE OF DECEIT: When Enron employees communicated about legitimate projects, e-mails were reciprocal and information was shared widely (right), but communications about an illicit project (left) reveal a sparse network with a central, informed clique and isolated external players.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Political thrillers that portray a “web of corruption” get it all wrong, at least according to an analysis of e-mails between Enron employees. The flow of the famously corrupt corporation’s electronic missives suggests that dirty dealings tend to transpire through a sparse, wheel-and-spoke network rather than a highly connected web.

Employees who were engaged in both legitimate and shady projects at the company conveyed information much differently when their dealings were illicit, organizational theorist Brandy Aven of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh reported June 1 at an MIT workshop on social networks. The distinction is visible in the network of e-mails among employees, which takes the shape of a wheel with a central hub and isolated spokes when content is corrupt, rather than a highly connected net of exchanges.

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