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: Voice of America

Publication Date: March 6, 2023

South Africa’s ANC Received Big Donation from Russian Oligarch-Linked Firm

Authoritarian Country: Russia

Affected Region: Sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa

Author: Kate Bartlett

View Resource: South Africa’s ANC Received Big Donation from Russian Oligarch-Linked Firm

The African National Congress, South Africa’s ruling party, received a large donation from a mining company used by a Russian oligarch to evade sanctions. Critics say this gift is a bribe in exchange for the ANC’s support for the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Source: The Guardian

Publication Date: February 12, 2023

Australia Foils Iran Surveillance Plot and Vows to Bring Foreign Interference ‘Into the Light’

Authoritarian Country: Iran

Affected Region: Asia-Pacific, Australia

Author: Daniel Hurst

View Resource: Australia Foils Iran Surveillance Plot and Vows to Bring Foreign Interference ‘Into the Light’

The Iranian government attempted to surveille dissidents and members of the diaspora living in Australia in order to threaten relatives or protesters back in Iran. Iran’s goal was to prevent criticism of the regime from Iranians living abroad.

Source: BBC

Publication Date: February 6, 2023

Disney Removes Simpsons ‘Forced Labour’ Episode in Hong Kong

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: North America, United States

Author: Nicholas Yong

View Resource: Disney Removes Simpsons ‘Forced Labour’ Episode in Hong Kong

An episode of American TV show The Simpsons was blocked in Hong Kong because of references to the human rights violations and forced labor camps in Xinjiang. American companies have had a tendency to comply with Chinese government demands to retain access to the Chinese market.

Source: All Africa

Publication Date: February 1, 2023

Africa: Taking a Toll – Lessons from Nairobi’s Expressway

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: Sub-Saharan Africa, Kenya

Author: Msingathi Sipuka

View Resource: Africa: Taking a Toll – Lessons from Nairobi’s Expressway

A new Chinese-built highway was billed as a benefit for citizens in Nairobi. However, an exploitative toll agreement benefitted the Chinese operators and made the expressway inaccessible for Kenyans.

Source: The Guardian

Publication Date: January 31, 2023

Saudi Arabia Tourism Body’s Sponsorship of 2023 Women’s World Cup Condemned by Human Rights Groups

Authoritarian Country: Saudi Arabia

Affected Region: Asia-Pacific, Australia, New Zealand

Author: Mostafa Rachwani

View Resource: Saudi Arabia Tourism Body’s Sponsorship of 2023 Women’s World Cup Condemned by Human Rights Groups

Saudi Arabia paid millions of dollars to become a sponsor of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. Organizations have called this a ploy to distract from Saudi women’s lack of political and economic rights in the kingdom, acting to whitewash their reputation on the world stage.

Source: Gulf International Forum

Publication Date: January 4, 2023

Saudi Investment in Africa Surges as Iran’s Influence Sputters

Authoritarian Country: Iran, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates

Affected Region: Senegal, Mali, Sub-Saharan Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Sierra Leone, Djibouti, Central African Republic, Rwanda, Mozambique, Guinea, Benin, The Gambia

Author: Jonathan Fenton-Harvey

View Resource: Saudi Investment in Africa Surges as Iran’s Influence Sputters

In an effort to diversify its investments and counter Iran, Saudi Arabia developed new relationships across Africa. For the Saudis, Emiratis, and Iranians, African economies present an opportunity to develop political influence outside of the Middle East, while reaping Africa’s natural resources.


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