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About the Portal

The research and reporting catalogued in the Sharp Power Research Portal encompasses the tactics and effects of authoritarian influence in five sectors critical to the vibrancy and integrity of open societies: media and information; commerce; culture and entertainment; knowledge generation; and technology.

The Sharp Power Research Portal is a resource hub for journalists, researchers, activists, policymakers, and others interested in understanding how authoritarian powers influence societies and institutions beyond their borders.

Through an interactive map and a resource database, the Portal illustrates how authoritarian actors have adapted modern domestic repression techniques for application abroad. The patterns of compromising influence that the Portal seeks to capture extend across diverse countries, regions, and sectors, with consequences for the trajectory of democracy around the world.

What is Sharp Power?

The term “sharp power” reflects an approach that typically involves the subtle penetration and manipulation of targeted countries and institutions. Such initiatives often include a determination to monopolize ideas, suppress alternative narratives, and exploit partner institutions. It is distinct from “soft power,” through which countries seek to exert influence by winning over hearts and minds. Soft power is associated with attraction arising from the positive appeal of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies—as well as from its independent civil society. In contrast, sharp power has the effect of limiting free expression, curbing pluralism, and distorting the political environment.

Methodology and FAQ

What type of resources are in the Portal?

The Portal catalogues diverse resources on authoritarian sharp power that range from blog posts to news articles to in-depth analysis from think tanks and independent scholars. All resources included in the Portal are written or published by an author or outlet with demonstrated expertise on the subject matter at hand. The analytical resources that provide a deeper dive into sharp power activities perpetrated by a specific authoritarian power, in a particular region, or within a specific sector—often over a period of time—can provide valuable context for mainstream reporting on current events. 

Taken collectively, these publicly available, evidence-based examples of reporting and analysis on sharp power demonstrate larger patterns in the ways authoritarian powers engage with foreign societies. Sharp power affects a wide range of countries, and while the majority of the resources included in the Portal are written in English, we are engaged in an active effort to curate additional resources in Spanish, French, Russian, and Arabic to account for the valuable perspectives in local-language reporting around the world. 

To date, the Portal hosts resources on 5 authoritarian influencers—China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—and 143 affected countries. The Portal does not capture every instance or facet of authoritarian sharp power and the inclusion of more or fewer resources on a given authoritarian power does not necessarily indicate the specific weight of a country’s influence. For example, while the high volume of China-related resources catalogued in the Portal may reflect the relative resource investment by the Chinese Communist Party in international influence activities, the aggregate resource collection may not fully capture sharp power exerted by other authoritarian regimes. Restraints on local and specialized investigative capacities, combined with the often-opaque nature of authoritarian influence, likely result in many examples of sharp power going unreported. As such, these resources are not exhaustive but provide a launchpad for further scrutiny of the expansion of sharp power activities around the world. Beyond cataloging authoritarian influencers and affected countries, researchers are encouraged to examine issues related to patterns, scope, and tactics related to sharp power.

How are resources identified?

Resources included in the Portal are identified through organic discovery and targeted searches of open-source reporting and analysis. An initial cluster of resources was identified during research for the Forum’s Sharp Power and Democratic Resilience report series. The addition of new resources is ongoing (see below for details about submitting a resource for consideration). 

To be included in the Portal, a resource must describe the activities of an illiberal or authoritarian regime (or a regime-linked actor); document transnational influence efforts within the public sphere of foreign societies; and highlight the effects of authoritarian influence on the integrity of institutions and globalized spaces. Harder forms of interference, such as activities exercised within the cybersecurity and military domains, fall outside the definition of sharp power and thus are not included in the Portal. 

In instances where multiple sources have reported on the same activity or event, we strive to include the resource that features local perspectives and/or provides the most context about changed behaviors resulting from authoritarian influence.

What do we mean by “authoritarian influencer” and “affected country”?

“Authoritarian influencer” primarily refers to central governing authorities that seek to consolidate control and alter international norms by restricting space for free association, censoring free expression, and undermining the integrity of institutions beyond their own borders. Resources that describe the sharp power activities of private, non-state proxy actors who are motivated (whether incentivized, compelled, or coerced) to comply with or carry out an authoritarian regime’s political agenda are also included in the Portal. The resources collected focus on illiberal and authoritarian regimes that are among the most well-resourced and assertive globally.

“Affected countries” refers to societies of all stripes that are subject to foreign authoritarian influence and grapple with its effects. Many of the resources included in the Portal focus on emerging democracies, which often lack the transparency and accountability mechanisms that can help stave off authoritarian advances.

The National Endowment for Democracy does not take a legal position on sovereignty over territorial or naming convention claims. Borders on the interactive map broadly align with definitions established by the U.S. Department of State.

Are there other datasets in this field?

The Forum is pleased to highlight the outstanding work of like-minded institutions and independent researchers from around the world who are working on a range of topics related to the impact of authoritarian influence on human rights, democratic integrity, and institutions: 

Can I download information from the Portal?

A customizable .CSV file of our resource database is available for download on the Resources page. If you use the Portal to conduct research for publication, please cite it accordingly: “The Sharp Power Research Portal: Recognizing Patterns of Authoritarian Influence,” National Endowment for Democracy, accessed on DATE, https://sharppower.org/.

Can I submit a resource to the Portal?

Recommendations for additional resources can be submitted here. All submissions will be reviewed by Forum staff according to the criteria described in our methodology above. We will accept submissions for review in the following languages: English, Spanish, French, Russian, and Arabic. Capacity to include resources in additional languages may be added over time.

Who runs the Portal?

The Portal is a project of the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies. Questions about the Portal and its contents may be submitted via email to forum@ned.org.

About the Forum

The International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is a leading center for analysis and discussion of the theory and practice of democracy around the world. The Forum complements NED’s core mission—assisting civil society groups abroad in their efforts to foster and strengthen democracy—by linking the academic community with activists from across the globe. Through its multifaceted activities, the Forum responds to challenges facing countries around the world by analyzing opportunities for democratic transition, reform, and consolidation. The Forum pursues its goals through several interrelated initiatives: publishing the Journal of Democracy; hosting fellowship programs for international democracy activists, journalists, and scholars; coordinating a global network of think tanks; and undertaking a diverse range of analytical initiatives to explore critical themes relating to democratic development.

About the National Endowment for Democracy

The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is a private, nonprofit foundation dedicated to the growth and strengthening of democratic institutions around the world. Each year, NED makes more than 2,000 grants to support the projects of nongovernmental groups abroad who are working for democratic goals in more than 90 countries. Since its founding in 1983, the Endowment has remained on the leading edge of democratic struggles everywhere, while evolving into a multifaceted institution that is a hub of activity, resources, and intellectual exchange for activists, practitioners, and scholars of democracy the world over.