Knowledge Generation


Knowledge Generation

Universities, think tanks, publishers, and other research institutions are targets of authoritarian influencers seeking to compromise the exchange of ideas.



Knowledge-sector institutions (universities, publishing houses, think tanks, and other research networks) in open societies should be autonomous, vibrant, and unfettered. But in many democracies, authoritarian powers are exerting influence that is undermining the integrity and independence of this sector.

The intensifying marketization of the knowledge sector has increased the financial and competitive pressures on these institutions. Their incentive structures, performance benchmarks, and funding models have been transformed, potentially compromising their autonomy and ability to resist external influence. By appropriating knowledge-sector institutions and other platforms of influence, authoritarian powers aim to compromise the exchange of ideas in democratic settings.

Sharp Power Influence

As knowledge-sector institutions integrate themselves into the global marketplace and deepen their participation in international exchanges, they often fail to consider how their counterparts in authoritarian settings are subject to political oversight and government regulation. Traditional due diligence and risk management frameworks are not designed to negotiate the corrupting machinations of authoritarian actors.

Technological advances, like machine learning, contribute to the precision and comprehensiveness of authoritarian censorship. Enterprising hackers can fabricate new versions of the historical record to meet the ideological or political requirements of an authoritarian regime. By digitally consolidating sources onto servers under its control, a savvy authoritarian government can project its domestic censorship regime further abroad to shape public opinion at the international level. 

Both academic and commercial publishers have come under increasing pressure from authoritarian governments to censor or alter content, maps, and images that contradict a regime’s preferences. Authors seeking to publish research that deals with topics and individuals close to authoritarian power centers risk becoming the target of expensive lawsuits led by well-resourced kleptocrats, oligarchs, and firms who can use libel accusations to tie up authors and publishing houses in court for years.

Other sharp power-related initiatives, like the creation of authoritarian “think tanks,” fill censorship-induced information voids with authoritarian narratives. To some degree, authoritarian “think tanks” operate similarly to their democratic counterparts: they organize public conferences and events, publish research online and in academic journals, and share analyses with the media. But the antiliberal and antidemocratic political systems underpinning these entities undercut any pretense of independence or transparency. 

The stakes for democratic security could not be higher. The purposeful, determined, and relentless efforts of authoritarian regimes to shape and manipulate the ideas space directly undermine the resilience of a core democratic principle—pluralism.

Nadège Rolland

Commanding Ideas: Think Tanks as Platforms for Authoritarian Influence

Democratic Responses

Universities, publishers, think tanks, and civil society operating in open societies can counter authoritarian efforts to undermine the knowledge sector by investing in the ecosystem that supports intellectual freedom.

Norms and Standard Setting
  • The university, publishing, and think tank sectors should develop shared industry guidelines to send clear signals about their principles and avoid ad hoc concessions to authoritarian actors.
  • Academic institutions should implement strict codes of conduct to guide their relationships with authoritarian actors. They should also develop proactive due diligence policies that include public disclosures of information about donors and sponsors.
  • Knowledge institutions, especially universities, should reduce exposure to financial coercion by diversifying their income sources. 
Cross-Sector Collaboration
  • Established think tanks and civil society organizations should engage with rising institutions and professionals in settings where expertise and opportunities for independent study are less developed. 
  • Academics, journalists, and publishers should coordinate on detailed best practices and stipulate them in contracts. This would allow localized instances of censorship to be handled ethically and transparently.
Education and Awareness
  • Civil society can challenge academic institutions to consider the non-economic costs and reputational risks of accepting resources from individuals and entities linked to authoritarian actors.
  • The academic and publishing sectors should seize the opportunity to self-monitor and enhance collective security before governments step in with blunt legislative and regulatory solutions.

Knowledge Generation

The reporting and analysis catalogued in the Portal illustrates how authoritarian powers exert influence in the academic, publishing, think tank, and policy communities of foreign societies.

Latest Resources

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Source: Atlantic Council

Publication Date: April 19, 2022

China’s Discourse Power Operations in the Global South: An Overview of Chinese Activities in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: Middle East and North Africa, South Africa, Iran, Venezuela, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean

Author: Kenton Thibaut

View Resource: China’s Discourse Power Operations in the Global South: An Overview of Chinese Activities in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East

Case studies on South Africa, Venezuela, and Iran reveal evidence of a symbiotic relationship between Beijing’s efforts to enhance its discourse power—including by co-opting the voices of foreign leaders—and local governments’ efforts to weaken the checks and balances that civil…

Source: The Diplomat

Publication Date: April 15, 2022

The CCP’s Ukraine War Propaganda

Authoritarian Country: Russia, China

Affected Region: Global

Author: Sarah Cook

View Resource: The CCP’s Ukraine War Propaganda

Three tactics played an outsized role in the Chinese Communist Party’s campaign to shape public opinion about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: flagship state media echoing Russian state disinformation, manipulation of social media hashtags, and censorship of alternative viewpoints and information…

Source: Journal of Democracy

Publication Date: April 14, 2022

How Beijing Runs the Show in Hollywood

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: North America, United States

Author: Aynne Kokas

View Resource: How Beijing Runs the Show in Hollywood

The relationship between PRC rules, the Chinese entertainment industry, and U.S. media conglomerates underscores a transition in the role of entertainment in politics. Beijing increasingly weaponizes technology and corporations’ dependence on political authorities for market access to control content.

Source: Journal of Democracy

Publication Date: April 14, 2022

China’s Tech-Enhanced Authoritarianism

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: Global

Author: Samantha Hoffman

View Resource: China’s Tech-Enhanced Authoritarianism

Emerging technologies, particularly those utilizing big data, are a critical component of the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to manipulate global audiences. Large datasets can reveal trends in human behavior, enabling the party-state to better understand public sentiment and disseminate propaganda.

Source: Doublethink Lab

Publication Date: March 30, 2022

Analysis: How Ukraine Has Been Nazified in the Chinese Information Space?

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: Ukraine, Europe

Author: Jerry Yu

View Resource: Analysis: How Ukraine Has Been Nazified in the Chinese Information Space?

Previously established cooperation agreements laid the groundwork for Russian and Chinese state media and state-linked social media to work in tandem to influence public opinion in China, Taiwan, and the Chinese diaspora in favor of the invasion of Ukraine on…

Source: Associated Press

Publication Date: March 29, 2022

How China’s TikTok, Facebook Influencers Push Propaganda

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: Global

Author: Amanda Seitz, Eric Tucker, Mike Catalini

View Resource: How China’s TikTok, Facebook Influencers Push Propaganda

The Chinese Communist Party has built a network of social media personalities who proffer propaganda to users around the globe, operating in lockstep as they deflect international criticism of human rights abuses and advance Beijing’s talking points on world affairs…


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