Paper - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Protecting Democracy in an Era of Cyber Information War

| February 2019


The early years of the Internet were marked by a libertarian optimism about its decentralizing and democratizing effects. Information would be widely available and undercut the monopolies of authoritarian governments. Big Brother would be defeated. President Clinton believed that China would liberalize and that Communist Party efforts to control the Internet were like trying to “nail jello to the wall.” The Bush and Obama administrations shared this optimism and promoted an Internet Freedom Agenda that included subsidies and technologies to assist dissidents in authoritarian states to communicate. 

Today, in the face of successful Chinese control of what citizens can see and say on the Internet and Russian use of the Internet to interfere in the 2016 American election, the United States (and allied democracies) find themselves on the defensive.  The expected asymmetries seem to have been reversed. Autocracies are able to protect themselves by controlling information flows, while the openness of democracies creates vulnerabilities that autocracies can exploit via information warfare. Ironically, one cause of the vulnerabilities has been the rise of social media and mobile devices in which American companies have been the global leaders. Citizens voluntarily carry Big Brother and his relatives in their pockets. Along with big data and artificial intelligence, technology has made the problem of defending democracy from information warfare far more complicated than foreseen two decades ago. And while rule of law, trust, truth and openness make democracies asymmetrically vulnerable, they are also critical values to defend.  Any policy to defend against cyber information war must start with the Hippocratic oath: first, do no harm. 


This paper was originally published as a Working Paper by the Hoover Institution’s Governance in an Emerging New World Project. See the link or download the pdf below for the full publication.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Nye, Joseph. “Protecting Democracy in an Era of Cyber Information War.” Paper, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, February 2019.