The issue of sharp power has only grown more urgent. Civil society activists from around the world have underscored the transnational nature of this challenge, and no country alone has a solution—it is how we work together.
– John K. Glenn, International Forum for Democratic Studies
Authoritarian sharp power seeks to monopolize ideas, suppress alternative narratives, and exploit partner institutions, according to researchers and activists from around the world convened by the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies (Forum) on December 7, 2021. This discussion, moderated by Kevin Sheives (Forum), was a part of the Global Democracy Coalition Forum and featured Dominika Hajdu (GLOBSEC, Slovakia), Ttcat (Doublethink Lab, Taiwan), George Sarpong (National Media Commission, Ghana), and Jessica Ludwig (Forum). Participants outlined democracies’ vulnerabilities to authoritarian sharp power, identified models of civil society resilience, and stressed the need for cross-border and interdisciplinary learning in a multistakeholder forum to foster democratic unity.
Civil society groups from around the globe have worked to identify the threats and vulnerabilities that sharp power poses to democratic societies and institutions. The Forum’s Sharp Power Research Portal is a tool for researchers, journalists, policymakers, and activists to recognize patterns of authoritarian influence in several domains. It includes over 750 resources providing research, reporting, and analysis, which “illustrate the truly global scope and scale of authoritarian influence” (Jessica Ludwig).
Other resources, such as GLOBSEC’s Eastern Europe-focused Vulnerability Index and Doublethink Lab’s Taiwan-focused Deafening Whispers report, map the Russian and Chinese governments’ efforts to exert malign influence worldwide by attempting to shift public attitudes and alter the information landscape. In Ghana and across Africa generally, Beijing has taken advantage of weaknesses in media systems to perpetuate their own narrative. As Dominika Hajdu explained, “there are now large networks of domestic actors who are actually using information manipulation techniques to manipulate and undermine society and increase sympathies towards authoritarian regimes.” Kevin Sheives described authoritarian powers’ “two-pronged strategy to both control the mechanisms for the delivery of content and amplify authoritarian-influenced content through overt and covert disinformation and its related forms.”
Multistakeholder approaches are needed to build democratic unity and generate innovative responses to sharp power. As Ttcat from Taiwan’s Doublethink Lab said, “democracy needs people who care about [foreign influence] to work together from every level—civil society, government, and other stakeholders—to form a coalition.” Societies on the front lines of authoritarian interference efforts can share their experiences, such as how Taiwan has partnered the government, civil society, and technology firms to accelerate democratic learning.”
Strengthening civil society is essential to enhancing democratic resilience and bridging gaps between local perspectives. Democracies need to simultaneously refresh and reinforce their own institutions and safeguard them from foreign authoritarian influence, prioritizing freedom of expression while exposing and, at times, removing content linked to authoritarian actors’ malign influence efforts
More established democracies should learn from multistakeholder processes, such as those from the emerging democracies discussed by the panel. Commitment to an inclusive civil society should be deepened, and leaders should work across disciplines to build resilience (as GLOBSEC’s ten steps for democratic resilience demonstrates). “Democracies make better allies, and the only way we move forward in our respective countries is to learn from what others are doing and to collaborate,” said George Sarpong, concluding “if we learned about the trends going on elsewhere, perhaps we could better prepare ourselves to deal with the threats that are found [domestically].”
About the participants
John K. Glenn is senior director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies, the research and analytical section of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Glenn has an extensive background working at the intersection of international affairs and democratic development, most recently as policy director at the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition (USGLC). He oversees and develops the Forum’s cross-cutting analytical and research activity in areas including transnational kleptocracy, the integrity of the information space, emerging technology, and sharp power and authoritarian influence. Prior to joining USGLC, Glenn served as director of foreign policy at the German Marshall Fund.
Dominika Hajdu is the head of the Centre for Democracy & Resilience at GLOBSEC. GLOBSEC is a think tank based in Bratislava, Slovakia that is committed to enhancing security, prosperity and sustainability in Europe and around the world. Hadju’s work at the Centre for Democracy and Resilience focuses on defending democracy against subversive efforts aiming to undermine it, as well as the examination of strategies, actors and tools utilized in information operations. In her research, she focuses on the impact of information operations and social media on a democratic society; cognitive security; and strategic communication of the public sector. In her current capacity, she has led several international research, awareness-raising and capacity-building projects for various target groups aiming to build societal and state resilience.
Jessica Ludwig is a senior program officer at the International Forum for Democratic Studies, the research and analytical section of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). In this capacity, she serves as editor of the Power 3.0 blog and producer of the Power 3.0 podcast. Her research focuses on authoritarian influence in emerging democracies, with a particular interest in China and Russia’s engagement with Latin America. Ludwig is coauthor (with Christopher Walker) of the report, A Full-Spectrum Response to Sharp Power: The Vulnerabilities and Strengths of Open Societies, and coeditor (with Christopher Walker) of the report, Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence (NED’s International Forum for Democratic Studies, 2017). Her writing has been published in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Global Americans, and the Journal of Democracy.
George Sarpong is a lawyer, journalist, and recognized industry leader in media and communications policy in Ghana. He currently serves as executive secretary of Ghana’s National Media Commission, which oversees more than 360 radio stations, 80 registered newspapers, 25 television channels, and various online publications. As executive secretary, he initiates and implements policies to ensure free, responsible, pluralistic, and diverse media and also works to address threats to media freedom and development. Before joining the National Media Commission, Sarpong served as coordinator of publications at the Media Foundation for West Africa, where he organized programs for the defense of journalists in West Africa. In 2001, he founded the Youth Network for Human Rights and Democracy (you-net) to train young Ghanaians in leadership and good governance, and in 2010 he set up the Party Youth Forum to foster peaceful cooperation among youth from different political parties. In 2018-2019, he was a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies.
Kevin Sheives is associate director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies, the research and analytical section of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). He has helped lead the Forum’s research and convening in areas such as the integrity of the information space, authoritarian influence and sharp power, transnational kleptocracy, and emerging technologies’ impact on democracy. Sheives joined the Forum in August 2020. For nearly fifteen years, he served as a manager and advisor at State Department offices leading U.S. diplomatic and governmental responses to strategic competition with China, global disinformation, and the Asia-Pacific’s rise. He also served in roles at the Defense Department, the office of the U.S. Trade Representative, and Congress.
Ttcat (Min Hsuan Wu) is the co-founder and CEO of Doublethink Lab, a Taiwan-based organization that operates at the intersection of the internet, public discourse, civil society, and democratic governance. Doublethink Lab is researching modern threats to democracy and devising strategies to counter them. He is focused on mapping China’s online information operation mechanisms and facilitating the global CSO network to combat digital authoritarianism. Over a decade and a half, Ttcar has committed to LGBTIQA+, environmental, open government, civic tech, and the digital rights movement as an activist and campaigner.