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.

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Source: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Publication Date: November 13, 2023

High-Tech Chinese ‘Border Scanners’ Raise Transparency, Privacy Questions In Serbia

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: Europe, Serbia

Author: Sonja Gocanin

View Resource: High-Tech Chinese ‘Border Scanners’ Raise Transparency, Privacy Questions In Serbia

China has donated border surveillance technology to Serbia under the stated goal of combatting smuggling and human trafficking across the Serbia-Bulgaria border. The donated technology, manufactured by CCP-backed Nuctech, may provide Beijing access to the personal data of EU citizens.

Source: Center for European Policy Analysis

Publication Date: November 12, 2023

Russia’s Hand Seen in Moldovan Local Elections

Authoritarian Country: Russia

Affected Region: Europe, Moldova

Author: Marija Golubeva

View Resource: Russia’s Hand Seen in Moldovan Local Elections

Candidates from Moldova’s Chance party were banned from the November 2023 elections for accepting laundered Russian funds. Through strategic investments, Russia has employed regionalization and strategic ambiguity to sow distrust in Moldova’s central government and democratic institutions.

Source: New York Times

Publication Date: November 2, 2023

In a Worldwide War of Words, Russia, China and Iran Back Hamas

Authoritarian Country: China, Iran, Russia

Affected Region: Global

Author: Steven Lee Myers, Sheera Frenkel

View Resource: In a Worldwide War of Words, Russia, China and Iran Back Hamas

Russia, China, and Iran have launched information campaigns to amplify messaging from Hamas’s online propaganda efforts. Outlets including Russia’s Sputnik India and RT en Español have echoed anti-western rhetoric and coopted anti-imperial messages to influence audiences across the Global South.

Source: Coda Story

Publication Date: October 25, 2023

Inside the Brain of a Kazakh Smart City

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: Eurasia, Kazakhstan

Author: Bradley Jardine

View Resource: Inside the Brain of a Kazakh Smart City

A small village in Kazakhstan has deployed Chinese surveillance technology ahead of government plans to create smart cities nationwide. Analysts have raised concerns over China’s access to the private data of Kazakh citizens and collaboration with China to target protesters and minority groups.

Source: Institute for Strategic Dialogue

Publication Date: October 24, 2023

Capitalizing on Crisis: Russia, China and Iran use X to Exploit Israel-Hamas Information Chaos

Authoritarian Country: China, Iran, Russia

Affected Region: Middle East and North Africa, Israel, North America, United States, Global

View Resource: Capitalizing on Crisis: Russia, China and Iran use X to Exploit Israel-Hamas Information Chaos

State-linked social media accounts from Iran, Russia, and China have used the Israel-Hamas conflict to spread disinformation and anti-Western rhetoric. This disinformation includes manipulated videos, false claims about US involvement in the conflict, and dangerous demonization of Israeli civilians.

Source: Newsweek

Publication Date: October 22, 2023

Iran Joins Middle East Propaganda War on China’s TikTok

Authoritarian Country: China, Iran

Affected Region: Asia-Pacific, China

Author: Aadil Brar

View Resource: Iran Joins Middle East Propaganda War on China’s TikTok

Iranian narratives on the Israel-Hamas conflict have proliferated on the popular Chinese short-video app Douyin. Iran has spread pro-Hamas and antisemitic propaganda to 1 million followers on Douyin, which Chinese state media has reposted.


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