Knowledge Laundering

At the actKM conference this week, one of the speakers was reading from some notes on a flip chart and mentioned the term “knowledge laundering”.  What as written was actually knowledge hoarding.  However, this set up a running gag about knowledge laundering which created some humour for the rest of the conference.  David Williams said that he would be writing a joint paper on the topic.  Below are some initial thoughts about where the paper could go.

A quick google search reveals that the term knowledge laundering has been used before.  It refers to the act of “laundering” information and knowledge that has been acquired through illegal means (such as reverse engineering or underground research) into what looks like legit results.  I think that there is a bit more to it than that.  In its broadest sense, it may not mean just illegally gained knowledge, but any knowledge that you don’t want to be linked with you – especially important for politicians.  What is required (just like money laundering) is to clean, strip or disconnect that knowledge from yourself.  There is a set process to do that:

  1. Remove all tags and labels from the knowledge to be laundered.  Just in case there are any identifying marks there or stains that could have come from organised grime.
  2. Mix your knowledge with others; one has to confuse the situation – or in this case of knowledge laundering, muddy the waters.
  3. While some people will attempt to clean the knowledge and separate your knowledge from others,  repeated spin cycles (or spin doctoring cycles) should help to deny/disguise/confuse your knowledge from other knowledge objects.  It is extremely important in this cycle not to interrupt this process as the laundering could become unbalanced which would then require some personal intervention to restart the whole laundering cycle.
  4. Finally, if the laundering process has not succeeded and there is still some knowledge that has not quite been stripped of its essential meaning, you can always hang it out to dry.  Most people in power are highly adept at hanging things out to dry.  Even though their knowledge is exposed for the world to see, they still coming through relatively unscathed because they don’t get close to the knowledge throughout this process.  

Any other suggestions that could expand on this notion of knowledge laundering would be appreciated.  Just add a comment …


2 Responses to Knowledge Laundering

  1. David Williams says:


    I agree with you, to an extent and I have had some further thoughts on the topic. I think that the definition can be broadened a bit further to cover ‘breaking or substituting the link between knowledge and its owner/originator for personal, organizational or even political gain’. I guess we are also straying into the area of intellectual property and moral rights as well.
    This may not only be where individuals illegally obtain and ‘launder’ knowledge for their own financial gain, but also where knowledge is manipulated and implanted for organizational or even political gain. Two issues come to mind, the first being the children overboard saga.
    The children overboard affair is an Australian political scandal which arose in 2001 when the government claimed that “a number of children had been thrown overboard” from a “suspected illegal entry vessel” (or SIEV) which had been intercepted by HMAS Adelaide off Christmas Island. The vessel, designated SIEV 4, was carrying a number of asylum seekers, and believed to be operated by people smugglers.
    The claim was first announced by the then Minister for Immigration, Philip Ruddock on 7 October 2001, and repeated in subsequent days and weeks by senior Government ministers, including the Minister for Defence, Peter Reith, and Prime Minister John Howard.
    The motivation of those allegedly throwing their children overboard, according to those who reported the incident, was to effectively “force” the Royal Australian Navy to rescue the children and their parents. The claim was used to instill doubt in the minds of the Australian people that the passengers of SIEV 4 were not genuine refugees, instead characterizing them as people prepared to use unscrupulous means to gain illegal entry into Australia.
    A subsequent inquiry by a Senate select committee found that not only was the claim untrue, but that the government knew the claim to be untrue before the Federal elections, which were held one month later. Part of the title of the main report prepared by the committee has become synonymous with the scandal: a certain maritime incident.
    Wikipedia contributors, “Children overboard affair,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed October 28, 2006).

    And secondly, the ‘sexing up’ of the September Dossier, formally entitled Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Assessment of the British Government, was part of a campaign by the government to bolster support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Its release date was brought forward due to increasing pressure from the media, and in the face of fierce criticism of the claim that Iraq possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs).
    The much-anticipated document was based on reports made by the Joint Intelligence Committee, part of the British Intelligence ‘machinery’. Most of the evidence was uncredited in order to protect sources.
    On publication, serious press comment was generally critical of the dossier for tameness and for the seeming lack of any genuinely new evidence. Those politically opposed to military action against Iraq generally agreed that the dossier was unremarkable, with Menzies Campbell observing in the House of Commons that:
    “We can also agree that Saddam Hussein most certainly has chemical and biological weapons and is working towards a nuclear capability. The dossier contains confirmation of information that we either knew or most certainly should have been willing to assume.”
    However, two sections would later become the centre of fierce debate: the allegation that Iraq had sought “significant quantities of uranium from Africa”, and the claim in the foreword to the document written by Tony Blair that “The document discloses that his military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them.”
    Britain’s biggest selling popular daily newspaper, The Sun, carried the headline “Brits 45 Mins from Doom”, while the Star reported “Mad Saddam Ready to Attack: 45 Minutes from a Chemical War”.
    Wikipedia contributors, “September Dossier,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed October 28, 2006).

  2. Thanks for that comment David

    Going back to Wikipedia, it states that money laundering is the practice of engaging in specific financial transactions in order to conceal the identity, source and/or destination of money. That could fit your definition about breaking or substituting the link between knowledge and its owner/orginator. It would mean that any plagiarism or spin doctoring would be knowledge laundering. Makes it fairly broad. I prefer a more narrow definition where knowledge is tied to you and needs to be distanced in some way. Your two examples seem good examples of spin doctoring – but the intent is not to distance knowledge from its owner/originator, rather to emphasise some “facts” over others.

    The problem with this overall analogy is that it treats knowledge as a finite resource whereas it can actually be shared without being depleted (abundance model), unlike money. Of course all this is the result of my dirty mind which needs a good clean-out.

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