Media and Information


Media and Information

Authoritarian influencers leverage propaganda, disinformation, censorship, and sway over content delivery systems to undercut the integrity of the information space.



State dominance over political expression and communication is a fundamental component of authoritarian control. Increasingly, authoritarian leaders that restrict media freedom and manipulate discourse in domestic settings also seek to curate information flows abroad as a form of modern censorship.

Digital-era changes to the information ecosystem have allowed narratives crafted by authoritarian regimes to gain traction far beyond their countries’ borders. Social media and the internet have lowered barriers to entry, enabling new actors to operate as information gatekeepers. Independent media outlets, meanwhile, have become increasingly vulnerable to economic coercion as they struggle to sustain themselves in an unfriendly business environment.

Sharp Power Influence

Authoritarian influencers take advantage of this already challenging information environment to flood the international media market with often coordinated, state-sponsored content: 

  • State media outlets that lack accountable and transparent governance structures—like RT (Russia Today), Sputnik, Press TV, CGTN, and Xinhua, among others—privilege authoritarian narratives and sideline independent perspectives.
  • Content-sharing and coproduction agreements between state-backed and independent news outlets act as a conduit for insinuating regime-friendly content into local reporting.
  • Journalist trainings and exchanges organized by authoritarian powers emphasize the regimes’ achievements and educate foreign journalists on how to report from the official perspective.

Authoritarians also employ trolling, online harassment, and forms of digital disinformation at scale to silence political dissent, shape election outcomes, and undermine democratic institutions. New technologies developed by a thriving commercial sector that offers disinformation as a service are used to demoralize, distract, and divide publics.

Information is a weapon—and one that can be used against us. This is an uncomfortable truth for open, democratic societies. We like to think that our media ecosystem is self-sustaining.

Edward Lucas

Firming Up Democracy’s Soft Underbelly: Authoritarian Influence and Media Vulnerability

Democratic Responses

Civil society can counter authoritarian sharp power in the media and information space. Familiarity with how authoritarian powers influence the information circulating in print publications, radio broadcasts, television programs, and social media feeds is a crucial first step.

Norms and Standard Setting
  • Media outlets should enhance operational transparency by publishing details about commercial relationships, acknowledging partnerships and information sources, and implementing procedures for receiving public complaints about inaccurate information.
  • The media sector should resist authoritarian efforts to define the boundaries of free expression and association by affirming its commitment to democratic standards, like accountability and human rights, and letting these principles guide engagement with authoritarian actors.
Cross-Sector Collaboration
  • Social media platforms should identify more meaningful ways to work with researchers, journalists, and civil society organizations, for example, to identify emerging threats and problematic accounts tied to authoritarian actors. Platforms should ensure that content producers and independent voices critical of authoritarian influence have an avenue for appeal when encountering online harassment or other censorship efforts.
  • Democracy and rights-focused organizations should incorporate the specific challenges posed by authoritarian media influence into future initiatives, with coordination and support from funders.
Education and Awareness
  • Civil society can help address persistent political-literacy gaps about modern forms of authoritarian influence. Surge capacity for local civil society expertise will help address sharp power inroads in established and emerging democracies alike.
  • An understanding of authoritarian influence should be mainstreamed into nongovernmental work on media freedom, free expression, and internet freedom. A comprehensive mainstreaming strategy can build on existing initiatives and should include investigation and research, actions by media outlets, initiatives led by journalists’ unions and media owner associations, and civil society efforts. 

Media and Information

The reporting and analysis catalogued in the Portal illustrates how authoritarian powers influence the media sector and information space in every region of the world.

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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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Media and Information

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