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

National Counter-Information Operations Strategy

| February 2019


American democracy is under attack. From the daily news to our social media feeds, nation-state competitors target the United States and its citizens, seeking to fuel division and chaos at home while undermining our interests abroad and our will to defend them. It is critical that policymakers and citizens understand these threats and how to counter them. This playbook seeks to ensure that U.S. citizens, not foreign actors, determine the future of U.S. democracy.

While nation-state competitors have employed propaganda and information operations (IO) targeting the United States for decades, in recent years their efforts have changed dramatically. The rise of the Internet and social media as mechanisms for disseminating news has made our country both more globally interconnected and simultaneously more vulnerable to foreign efforts to destabilize our democracy. There is now clear evidence that Russia used influence operations designed to undermine U.S. democracy and citizens’ trust in its integrity in both the 2016 and 2018 election cycles. Adversaries are actively using information as a weapon to attack the United States, our political system, and citizens’ trust in it. 

The consequences for the United States are severe. Foreign actors stoke social tensions and drive partisan politics in our elections. America’s competitors undermine our willingness to defend our beliefs and the rules-based international system—from Ukraine to the South China Sea. The principles upon which our nation was founded are now under ongoing attack, with no letup in sight. Across each of these dimensions, strategic competitors seek to use the free and open nature of our social and political system against us. Russian efforts to undermine our elections are the most significant near-term threat, but it is far from the only challenge we face. In the medium- to long-term, China seeks to displace the United States from the Indo-Pacific and rewrite the rules-based international system to suit its own interests. Iran and North Korea both harbor ambitions to fundamentally change their regional security environments. In each of these cases, information operations targeting the United States are a key tool that our competitors use to pursue their goals. 

As a result, the United States urgently needs to understand how it can better prevent information operations and mitigate their effects on our citizens and our democracy. 

This report helps address the challenge posed by IO by defining the IO threats that the United States faces and then outlining an overall approach for countering them in a manner consistent with American values. This approach reflects an integrated, whole-of-nation effort—with a focus on the federal government, but also including relevant players in the private sector and civil society. Finally, the report concludes with a set of concrete actions that each of these actors can take to better counter and mitigate IO.

This Playbook consists of three parts: 

  • Our Approach: Outlines the intent of the playbook and key considerations.
  • Understanding the Threat: Explains threats across the information landscape facing the United States. 
  • Recommendations: Offers 10 key recommendations that the public and private sector in the United States can take now to combat information operations by increasing costs and reducing benefits for competitors.  


Read the full playbook by downloading the PDF below:

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Cederberg, Gabriel, Jordan D'Amato, Corinna Fehst, Simon Jones, Kunal Kothari, Aleksandra Milcheva and Irene Solaiman. “National Counter-Information Operations Strategy.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, February 2019.

The Authors