Knowledge Generation

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Knowledge Generation

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

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Overview

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.

Brain
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.

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Source: Jerusalem Post

Publication Date: September 28, 2023

Sweden Accuses Iran of Targeted ‘Misinformation’ about Quran Burnings

Authoritarian Country: Iran, Russia

Affected Region: Europe, Sweden

Author: Seth J. Frantzman

View Resource: Sweden Accuses Iran of Targeted ‘Misinformation’ about Quran Burnings

Iran and Russia-backed disinformation campaigns have used recent Quran burnings to manipulate sentiments in Sweden. Fearing the effects of these malign efforts, the Swedish government has tasked its Agency for Psychological Defense with countering these campaigns.

Source: Foreign Policy Research Institute

Publication Date: September 18, 2023

China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Politics Over Economics

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: Global

Author: Felix K. Chang

View Resource: China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Politics Over Economics

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been expected to enter a new phase following the PRC’s Third BRI Forum in October 2023. With over 150 countries participating in the BRI, China’s plans for its signature initiative have appeared increasingly political and less focused on infrastructure development.

Source: Middle East Institute

Publication Date: September 2, 2023

Iran Gleefully Eyes the Protests in Israel, Looking for Weaknesses to Exploit

Authoritarian Country: Iran

Affected Region: Middle East and North Africa, Israel

Author: Jason M. Brodsky

View Resource: Iran Gleefully Eyes the Protests in Israel, Looking for Weaknesses to Exploit

In addition to violent intervention through proxy militia groups, Iran has used cyber interference to exacerbate political rifts in Israeli society and advance Iranian interests. Iran-backed disinformation campaigns have misled high-level officials and target Israelis across the political spectrum.

Source: Foundation for Defense of Democracies

Publication Date: October 30, 2023

HispanTV Is Iran’s Propaganda Arm in Latin America; Why Is It Still Being Broadcast?

Authoritarian Country: Iran

Affected Region: Latin America and the Caribbean

Author: Emanuele Ottolenghi, Marina Rosenberg

View Resource: HispanTV Is Iran’s Propaganda Arm in Latin America; Why Is It Still Being Broadcast?

HispanTV, Iran’s Spanish-language media outlet, has spread disinformation to influence global narratives surrounding the Israel-Hamas conflict. The state of Iran has used HispanTV as a platform to defend Hamas, espouse antisemitic rhetoric, and glorify violence.

Source: The Diplomat

Publication Date: October 17, 2023

Indonesia, China Vow to Expand Economic Cooperation

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: Asia-Pacific, Indonesia

Author: Sebastian Strangio

View Resource: Indonesia, China Vow to Expand Economic Cooperation

The third Belt and Road Forum, in October 2023, demonstrated that many Southeast Asian leaders see China as the key to their nations’ prosperity, helping them to build infrastructure and adopt new technologies. That dependence may discourage leaders from challenging China’s anti-democratic rhetoric.

Source: New York Times

Publication Date: October 11, 2018

Museums Forced to Reassess Saudi Ties Amid Uproar Over Journalist’s Fate

Authoritarian Country: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates

Affected Region: North America, United States

Author: Robin Pogrebin, Sopan Deb

View Resource: Museums Forced to Reassess Saudi Ties Amid Uproar Over Journalist’s Fate

Prominent New York museums have accepted funding from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi governments, even after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and despite labor concerns in the UAE. Most museums maintained these relationships after the murder, allowing the regimes’ influence to persist unchecked.

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