Former Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton spoke about digital democracy at Stanford on Friday as part of a day-long launch of the Global Digital Policy Incubator (GDPi) at Stanford’s Center for Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL).

The launch of GDPi, Clinton said, “could not be at a better time or a better place.”

Our country and other democracies are facing serious and urgent challenges from the nexus of technology, propaganda, terrorism, espionage and cyberwarfare.”

In front of a packed Cemex Auditorium of over 500 students, faculty, staff, and other guests, Clinton delivered a keynote titled “Digital Technology, Diplomacy and Democratic Values,” before sitting down for a discussion with Eileen Donahoe, who served as the first US ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council during the Obama Administration, was director of global affairs at Human Rights Watch, and is now executive director of GDPi.

Clinton stressed the seriousness of cybersecurity, calling Russia’s use of technology to threaten democracy in the US and across the world “a new kind of Cold War.”

A New Doctrine

I believe that it is time for the United States to declare a new doctrine, stating that a cyberattack on our vital infrastructure will be treated as an act of war.”

Clinton proposed five key ways in which the US must move to protect itself against the “clear and present danger” of increasingly sophisticated uses of technology.

First, she underscored the importance of public-private partnerships to develop offensive and defensive technology as a deterrent to cyberwarfare. She stressed that “corporate America needs to see this as an urgent directive.”

Second, she advocated getting “tough with Putin,” calling the current administration’s lack of action “shameful.” In her remarks, Clinton supported arming the Ukrainian government to resist Moscow.

Third, Clinton raised the importance of closing “legal loopholes in our election process,” particularly around preventing non-citizens from purchasing political advertising. She mentioned a recent finding that some of the online advertising during the 2016 campaign was paid for in rubles, which should have raised some concern.

Fourth, Clinton called for a more comprehensive investigation of the 2016 election, specifically for an independent commission with subpoena power, such as the one that investigated the 9/11 terrorism attacks.

Clinton called Russian interference in 2016 “a brazen assault by a foreign adversary determined to mislead our people, inflame our divisions and throw an election to their preferred candidate.” Regarding her own judgement of how much Russian interference affected her electoral loss to Donald Trump last November, Clinton would only say that it was “something of a perfect storm” and that “there were many factors that influenced the outcome of the election.” At the same time, she went so far as to call the hacking her campaign experienced “a virtual Watergate break-in.”

The final component of Clinton’s five-part proposal was a call for all Americans, particularly students, to “fight back against the assault on truth and reason and rebuild trust in our institutions.” She suggested two tactics for waging this battle: breaking out of “echo chambers” to encourage dialogue based on a “reverence for facts, reason and evidence” and teaching children how to distinguish fact from opinion at an early age..

Fake News

We’ve gotten used to people not being held accountable for any kind of truth. What do we do? We have to begin in pledging our allegiance to fact-based deliberation, fact-based policy.”

Clinton saw the Russian hackers as taking advantage of our national weaknesses of political polarization, a lack of faith in government, and failure by the media to hold elected officials accountable.

She suggested that a leniency regarding truth pervades our society at large: “There has become an industry of fabrication for the purpose of gaining advantage: commercial advantage, partisan advantage, ideological advantage.”

Clinton pointed to the ability of the so-called Pizzagate conspiracy theory to get as much attention as it did as proof of the vulnerability of the American political situation. Clinton connected the Pizzagate “scandal,” in which Clinton and Podesta were supposed to be running a child trafficking operation of out a pizza shop in downtown DC, to Russian election interference: The scandal was based on speculation over John Podesta’s emailed that were released by WikiLeaks.

Clinton suggested that media producers and consumers may have been drawn to the false Pizzagate story because “if something looks like its secretive, it’s got to be more interesting.” She called on members of the media to think more carefully about what news they report on, and she encouraged more fact-checking of the media by citizens.

She did, however, note that such interference as occurred in 2016 was “unprecedented,” and she called for vigilance going forward.

The Role of Silicon Valley

As we all know, the 2016 campaign revealed a darker side of the intersection between technology and democracy.”

Clinton, speaking at the very center of Silicon Valley, had to address the roles major social media and IT companies as well as rampant, unchecked technological advances played and continue to play in enabling anti-democratic agendas. She claimed that companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter accelerated the spread of fake news.

Clinton said that it’s time for Facebook “to demonstrate real transparency and accountability” and for Twitter “to stop dragging its heels and face up to the reality that its platform was — and is — being used as a tool of cyberwarfare and propaganda.”

While her words called for action, she was also optimistic about the benefits technology may bring, noting that online terrorist recruitment and child pornography have been curbed by the awareness and accountability of tech companies. Clinton urged Stanford students to “strike the right balance,” emphasizing that while technology can be a powerful tool for good, students must more intentionally contemplate the profound economic and social impacts that may accompany technological advancements.

Stanford’s Global Digital Policy Incubator, led by Eileen Donahue and Larry Diamond, seeks to address the kinds of issues raised by Clinton, through supporting policymakers and gathering resources to address challenges to governance and democracy posed by technology.


Emily Lemmerman, a junior studying sociology, is an events reporter for Stanford Politics.