Another kind of cybersecurity risk: the destruction of common knowledge

In a report for the Berkman Klein center, Henry Farrell and Bruce Schneier identify a gap in current approaches to cybersecurity. National cybersecurity officials still base their thinking on Cold War-type threats, where technologists focus on hackers. Combining both approaches, Farrell and Schneier make a wider argument about collective knowledge in democratic systems—and the dangers of its diminishment.

From the abstract:

“We demonstrate systematic differences between how autocracies and democracies work as information systems, because they rely on different mixes of common and contested political knowledge. Stable autocracies will have common knowledge over who is in charge and their associated ideological or policy goals, but will generate contested knowledge over who the various political actors in society are, and how they might form coalitions and gain public support, so as to make it more difficult for coalitions to displace the regime. Stable democracies will have contested knowledge over who is in charge, but common knowledge over who the political actors are, and how they may form coalitions and gain public support… democracies are vulnerable to measures that ‘flood’ public debate and disrupt shared decentralized understandings of actors and coalitions, in ways that autocracies are not.”

One compelling metaresearch point from the paper is that autocratic governments receive analysis of information trade-offs, while democratic governments do not:

“There is existing research literature on the informational trade-offs or ‘dictators’ dilemmas’ that autocrats face, in seeking to balance between their own need for useful information and economic growth, and the risk that others can use available information to undermine their rule. There is no corresponding literature on the informational trade-offs that democracies face between desiderata like availability and stability.”

Full paper available on SSRN here.

  • Farrell summarizes the work on Crooked Timber: “In other words, the same fake news techniques that benefit autocracies by making everyone unsure about political alternatives undermine democracies by making people question the common political systems that bind their society.” Many substantive comments follow. Link.
  • Jeremy Wallace, an expert on authoritarianism, weighs in on Twitter: “Insiders, inevitably, have even more information about the contours of these debates. On the other hand, there’s a lot that dictators don’t know—about their own regimes, the threats that they are facing, etc.” Link to Wallace’s work on the topic.
  • Related reading recommended by Wallace, from Daniel Little, a 2016 paper on propaganda: “Surprisingly, the government tends to pick a high level of propaganda precisely when it is ineffective.” Link.


An exploration into the relationship between income and psychological well-being

For this week’s graduate student spotlight, we’re sharing the work of Mo Alloush, a PhD candidate in economics at UC Davis. His job market paper probes the relationship between a person’s psychological and economic well-being. Alloush finds that “causal impacts in both directions create a feedback loop between income (and by extension poverty) and psychological well-being that has the potential to affect income dynamics and put individuals on vicious or virtuous cycles.”

On Twitter, economist Martin Ravallion wrote that the paper included “striking findings on the interrelationship between poverty and mental health.” Link to paper.

In a corresponding blog post, Alloush concisely discusses the larger policy implications of his findings:

“While the results mainly stress the potential negative consequences of this relationship, there is a positive story to tell. Poverty-alleviation programs have an added benefit of positive impacts on psychological well-being, which is an important goal in itself, and may also enhance the beneficiary’s capability to further increase their economic well-being. The results in my paper reaffirm the importance of considering psychological variables in poverty-alleviation programs. My hope is that the results from this paper guide and encourage future research on this topic and that organizations begin to consistently and seriously track mental health.”

Link to the post.


  • Our friend and colleague Kevin James, along with Peter Taylor of ECMC, has published an editorial in Crain’s Chicago Business on the promise of income share agreements for low-income students and new pilots in Chicago. Link.
  • Relatedly, in the NYTimes, Andrew Ross Sorkin writes about ISAs’ appeal to venture capitalists. Link.
  • “Can a set of equations keep US census data private?” Article by Jeffrey Mervis. Link. ht Jack B
  • On a similar note to last week’s spotlight, Innovations for Poverty Action is setting new goals for making sure evidence is relevant, accessible, and applicable. Post by Annie Duflo here.
  • UC Berkeley’s Evan Rose and Yotam Shem-Tov have a new paper on the causal effect of incarceration on reoffending. They use a regression discontinuity analysis to show “that one year of incarceration reduces the likelihood of committing new assault, property, and drug offenses within three years of conviction by 38%, 24% and 20%, respectively.” However, the paper also suggests that “the benefit of reducing crime by lengthening sentences is outweighed by the large fiscal costs of incarceration.” Link.
  • Paul Romer and Tyler Cowen in conversation. Lots of interest here, including Romer’s thoughts on R&D, and an old policy idea of his to fund graduate students rather than professors: “I think that the problem in higher ed is that the institutional incentives don’t provide the kind of training that would maximize the opportunities for the students or, for that matter, maximize outcomes for the nation. There’s, for example, much too much persistence in disciplinary lines and modes of inquiry… We subsidize graduate education through money that goes to professors, but we let the professors make the decisions about the problems they work on, and then, therefore, the things the students are trained in.” Link.
  • At MDRC, Colleen Sommo, Dan Cullinan, and Michelle Manno evaluate the first findings from the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) Ohio Demonstration. Their findings “show that students in the program group clearly outperformed the control group with respect to persistence in school, credit accumulation, and graduation” and that graduation rates more than doubled. Link to the research brief.
  • How to make smart cities accessible? Smart Cities for All has designed a toolkit: “Each of the tools addresses a priority challenge identified by global experts as a barrier to the digital inclusion of persons with disabilities and older persons in Smart Cities.” Link. ht Lauren
  • On the Replication Network blog, David Roodman reflects on the process of replicating studies about hookworm and malaria. Link. ht Michael
  • We wish we could have attended this ASSA session, “The Economics of Ancient Data,” with papers on trade in the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, Ancient Greece, and Ancient Rome. Link.

Each week we highlight research from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Send us recommendations:

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