June 17th, 2012
01:26 PM ET

How dictators have evolved with the times

By Fareed Zakaria

We tend to think of dictators as all-powerful leaders who act with naked cruelty and impunity. Think of Bashar al Assad in Syria. Or, for a celluloid reminder, think of Sacha Baron Cohen as Gen. Admiral Aladeen, a North African despot.

But the film "The Dictator" — and our imagination of dictators — is getting outdated. The new dictator is more evolved and more attuned to how people think.

A new book highlights that trend. It's called "The Dictator's Learning Curve" by William Dobson.

Dictators have gotten smart, Dobson writes, to keep pace with changes in technology. Old-school oppressors like Mao, Pol Pot or Idi Amin could keep their atrocities relatively secret. That's not possible today. If a dictator tried to orchestrate a mass killing and keep it secret, he'd likely fail. It would end up on YouTube.

Uganda's Joseph Kony is now an internet phenomenon. Charles Taylor of Liberia was recently found guilty by the U.N. Special Court for Sierra Leone. Sudan's President Bashir has been indicted.

So today's cleverest dictators have evolved. They allow a certain amount of dissent, as an escape valve.

Consider China. There's a new study out this week by three political scientists at Harvard. They've devised a way to analyze millions of social media posts in China. What's special is that they claim to do this before the Chinese government gets to censor them - so it provides a unique insight not just into what the Chinese people think, but also what the government deems necessary to censor.

What do they find? Contrary to what you'd think, it turns out criticisms of the state are not more likely to get censored. Even vitriolic criticisms are allowed. Instead, the focus is on stopping mass mobilization. Last year Beijing blocked internet searches for Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution" to prevent discussions about the Arab Spring. Similarly last week searches for the numbers 4/6 were censored - the numbers represented June 4th, the anniversary of the massacre at Tiananmen Square.

The Harvard study shows that Beijing's leaders are making measured concessions. It is said that some 500 protests take place every day across China. But anything that could lead to something larger or more organized is instantly censored and clamped down on.

Another example - Putin's Russia has usually allowed the print media a great deal of freedom, on the theory that what a few tens of thousands of people read in Moscow and St. Petersburg doesn't matter. But the regime has taken over television news completely, so mass opinion is carefully controlled out of the Kremlin.

We're witnessing a trend in China, Russia, Venezeula, and many other countries - even Myanmar. Gone are the days when dictators could completely ignore the demands of their people.

As citizens become more exposed to events around the world, more connected to each other on the internet and social media, dictators will have to make greater concessions. It's a situation that is far better than how things were 10, 20, or 50 years ago. Regimes like those in Syria and North Korea can act with all-out brutality, but they are outliers - they represent a fading order.

The new model is to allow a controlled space for free commerce, for open education, even for dissent. Perhaps people in these countries can use that space to expand the realm of freedom and liberty.

soundoff (294 Responses)
  1. Andrew Cheatham

    Quick correction– Charles Taylor was recently convicted by the Specisl Court for Sierra Leone not the International Criminal Court. They are completely separate criminal courts.

    I still love the show!!


    June 17, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      True, this court was backed by the then U.N. General Secretary Kofi Annan at Sierra Leone's request in 2000 and was approved by the Security Council. Charles Taylor was tried in the Hague under jurisdiction of Sierra Leone.
      Indeed it's confusing that the International Criminal Court takes on cases relating to DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), Sudan, Uganda, Libya, Ivory Coasts etc.and not Rwanda, Ex-Jugoslavia and Sierra Leone, which were dealt with by special courts. The ICC-case of the Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga had been highly criticised: 10 years, one verdict and over $ 900 million.

      June 18, 2012 at 3:31 am | Reply
      • j. von hettlingen

        Fareed, true dictators are oppressors but they are also narcissists. They want to be loved by their citizens as well. So they stick to the carrot and stick policy. They are also realistic and are aware of what technology offers. They know they can't prevent people from communicating with each other and expand the security apparatus.

        June 18, 2012 at 3:45 am |
      • Michelle

        So how do dictators, who seem to be increasing, come to power? Through might and military agression. Why don't we see more revolutions where democracy can come to power through might? People all over the world have the same nature–to defy oppression. Why don't we see it more? The subtle approach described in the article is likely transparent to those oppressed as well–one newspaper doesn't make up for fear of patrols. Do they just need one spark? Also, we really should pave the way for more programs in mid east to nip in bud the personalities that gravitate toward suicide extremism. How to mold a 6,7,8year old into a free thinking, sense of self personality? Hmm, that Right to Play program is really good. I guess that comment's not relevant on this post but oh well.

        June 20, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • Kalki Venkateshwara

      New dictator 3rd Anti Christ comes and rules world http://www.swastik.org

      June 18, 2012 at 8:34 am | Reply
    • S Y Janjua

      The mind of Zakiria is controlled by jews lobby in USA, he forget to mentioned every one is changing, but USA is controlling muslim country from freedom, through their army and dictator.

      June 18, 2012 at 11:58 am | Reply
      • Doozer

        Your Brain is leaking out your ears.

        June 18, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
      • mike

        LOL WUT?

        June 18, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
      • John In WNY

        Take the nice medicne the nurse gives you, it will make help limit your psychotic ramblings.

        June 18, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
      • capt Jack TheLadde

        he really lives in a bubble ! 🙂
        obama is the worse kind ov dictator.

        June 19, 2012 at 9:12 am |
      • DP

        > The mind of Zakiria is controlled by jews lobby in USA

        nope, they just control his wallet and as FZ is a smart person he knows how to keep his pocket full...

        June 19, 2012 at 10:39 am |
      • BrettinMN

        Dial back the Stupid.

        June 19, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
      • gamersliverfang

        You have a point don't mind the below sheeps who don't have a clue on whats going on,

        Egypt was secular Now it will be controlled by The Muslim Brotherhood.

        June 19, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
      • S Y Janjua is Right

        Zakaria's mind is indeed being controlled by the "jews lobby" through a highly sophisticated satellite launched by ancient aliens thousands of years ago with the blessings of Moses. There is only only way to stop the jews lobby and their satellite from beaming controlling thoughts into the brain of Fareed Zakaria and that is obviously to send Bruce Willis and a ragtag gang of oil-riggers to blow up said satellite in an action-packed suicide mission. Thank you S Y Janjua for revealing the truth. It's about time someone stood up to the jews lobby and their alien-powered Fareed Zakaria-controlling super satellite. You sir are a true American patriot.

        June 20, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
    • Becky joseph

      We need God in our life, the only way forward is for the bad leaders to live the sit.

      June 18, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Reply
      • jon

        All dictators should promptly be shot to death. That might end dictatorships and let people live their lives in peace.

        June 18, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
      • mike

        The level of discourse here is hilariously low. I hope you're not registered voters. If so, I weep for this country.

        June 18, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
      • Keith

        All Gods should be shot

        June 19, 2012 at 12:42 am |
      • Jeremy

        In theory, Gods cannot be shot.

        June 19, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
      • Adam

        I think Becky is trying to make a relevant comparison between the ultimate Dictator(s) – the blustery Old Testament God vs the now more relevant, cuddly & loving God. Or she's just, y'know, another religious waterhead.

        June 19, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • Ratna

      Mr. Zakaria you belong to a dictator group

      June 18, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Reply
    • American

      I guess Zakaria forgot about our Dictator in training, Obama,

      June 18, 2012 at 9:50 pm | Reply
    • 100 % ETHIO

      What will happen, if US doesn't support the Jew, but remain neutral?????

      June 19, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Reply
  2. Immortal Spaces

    Taylor was found guilty by the Special Court for Sierra Leone's trial chamber, but the proceedings took place at the Hague.

    June 17, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Reply
  3. Director from Shawshank

    You have typo error in the article – it's Venezuela, not a Venezeula.

    June 17, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Reply
    • Doozer

      Here is a gold star.
      Place it on your weener.

      June 18, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Reply
      • billybart


        June 18, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  4. Amin Parnian

    Great observation! Staying in power I the key for the dictators and they'd do anything to sustain that. They may even talk about freedom and democracy from time to time.

    June 17, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Reply
    • Diana R

      Dictators talking about freedom and democracy is not new. In the 1930's Hitler routinely spoke of freedom and democracy.

      June 18, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Reply
  5. johnpicarra

    What About the Secrecy Law in South Africa? The Machine Gunner Pres Zuma ( Zero Understanding Matters Any ) wants to keep the Association of National Criminals known as african national congress, in power, despite Genociding 5 Million Aids sufferers by refusing them medication!
    When Are You Going to Expose That? the poster of the left wing marxists machine gunners?
    The mentally challenged for which Michelle Obama demonstarted? When Gorbachov moved away from communism in 1982, and the Chinese moved away from Communism in 1977?
    Yes, the communists and gangsters are in power here!

    June 17, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Reply
    • Mortran

      Curious, despite your 5 million "AIDS sufferers", the population of South-Africa has grown about the same number during the last 10 years, an undiminished growth compared to the 10 years before without AIDS. A genocide where nobody dies.
      Today people are too quick claiming genocide. It has become fashion somehow.
      May be today's dictators have changed, because they are no dictators.
      There is no true democracy anywhere in the world. The elites make always sure they stay in power. I wouldn't call them dictators though.

      June 18, 2012 at 5:00 am | Reply
      • Machi

        All the children born in SA have aids-from their parents.
        There is going to be alot of cheap real estate in about 25 years.

        June 19, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  6. JAL

    Too big to fail.

    June 17, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Reply
  7. Tazbi

    Dictators are indeed learning and becoming smart but not the African ones. Ethiopian dictator recently laid out a law which criminalizes skype or any VOIP service with a 15 year prison term effectively scaring away any foreign tourist coming to the country. Dont think a foreign national of western descent gets things easy there as well cause there are a number of Canadian and Swedish journalists and civilians languishing in their jail.

    June 17, 2012 at 6:37 pm | Reply
    • jim

      This should not surprise anyone. Africa's only value to the world is its exotic animals, and they're killing those as fast as they can.

      June 18, 2012 at 8:46 am | Reply
      • Ed

        How's life in the trailer park?

        June 18, 2012 at 9:46 am |
      • Mwada Ndachana

        You are wrong. Africa sustains the world. Africa's abundant natural and human resources revolutionizes Europe and American economies and is still doing so. Right now Asian economy is afloat because of African resources. The time is coming when Africa will utilize its own resources then we will see how the rest will survive.

        June 18, 2012 at 11:27 am |
      • Fast Fred

        Your right...and we are the exotic animals, are did you forget about evolution.

        June 18, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
      • Fast Fred

        Your right...and we are the exotic animals, or did you forget about evolution.

        June 18, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • Russ

      Africa, resources? Right. There are diamonds and gold, and some oil? If their economies developed, there wouldn't be enough for them.

      June 18, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Reply
    • Russ

      Africa, resources? Right. There are diamonds and gold, and some oil. If their economies developed, there wouldn't be enough for them.

      June 18, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Reply
  8. Dave Takaki

    inteeresting... I tend to think of Leni Riefenstahl, not Charlie Chaplin, since there has been NO effective response to Damascus' DisInformation War... something you feel is not important enough to comment on. Best you read Manfred Manwaring and revisit John Kenneth Galbraith's depiction of power



    June 17, 2012 at 7:27 pm | Reply
  9. Andrew W

    Watching the broadcast in China. As expected, the majority of this WITW segment was blocked out by the censors.

    June 17, 2012 at 9:34 pm | Reply
  10. Tom

    This article is more about censorship than dictatorship.

    In which case I say look to the UK to see sophisticated censorship at work.

    June 18, 2012 at 12:17 am | Reply
    • Thomas Henley

      Censorship is alive and well here in the U.S., it's just corporate minders doing it in the name of 'Free Enterprise...and ownership has it's priveleges' instead of the government...which coincidentally the U.S. Government doesn't operate the media outlets the corporations do.

      The government keeps its hands clean and is not involved in the censorship but everyone looks the otherway including the government when the corporations are responsible for it.

      How utterly convenient, how totally tragic.

      June 18, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Reply
      • Richard

        Soon these dictators will get really wise and realize that if they simply replace their media news programs with reality TV entertainment then their population will quickly ignore the illegal and immoral actions of their leaders and become more concerned over which bachelor will be going home on tonight's program. It's a system that works well in the US!

        June 18, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  11. NoNotNever

    News and Information manipulated at "Western" countries even MORE than at countries mentioned by Fareed.
    Let me remind:
    Iraq WMD's turned to be blatant lie – media does not worry much and noone responcioble
    "Damascus activist " turned to be blatant lie used by newsmakers for their purpose......noone worry
    "Damascus girl" turned to be blatant lie used by newsmakers for their purpose......noone worry
    "Children killed by Assad" turned to be blatant lie used by newsmakers for their purpose......noone worry
    "Russian helicopters" turned to be blatant lie used by US state department and newsmakers for their purpose......noone worry
    Just recently, "Russian ship with weapons" turned to be blatant lie used by newsmakers for their purpose......noone worry

    You can not have this BOTH WAYS nowadays. If you wish others to not LIE to their people......do not LIE oneself.
    Otherwise US is same dictatorship

    June 18, 2012 at 1:19 am | Reply
    • No NonSense

      My words exactly. Couldnt have framed better. But can add......

      Greece quitting Euro and Euro Zone breaking but turns out they decided to stay back.
      Russian Elections not fair but turn out Obama sending private messages to Putin to wait for his second term.

      June 18, 2012 at 9:18 am | Reply
    • mike

      Russian helicopters did NOT turn out to be a lie. The Russians denying through spin it does not make it untrue. Note that Russia does not deny sending attack helicopters...they only deny sending helicopters for the purpose of attacking civilians. Which they have no control over.

      It's YOU who need to wake up.

      June 18, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Reply
  12. VladimirPutin

    Even if the western politicians will tell that Jesus the dictator...... that the western mass media so will make the work...... that the majority of people some months later will furiously shout..... Kill him.... kill the dictator... kill Jesus.... Kill..... And looking on the TV at Jesus blood-stained body with a smile upon the face WOW cool will tell....

    Zombiing through mass media.... million zombies.... can't think, can't analyze.... can listen and submit only.... Go blindly to execute team and the order with the hands extended forward.... Dictator... Dictator... give those blood of the dictator... give still the dictator.... we want to eat...

    June 18, 2012 at 3:39 am | Reply
    • JAL

      Destroying to obtain energy is unsustainable.

      June 18, 2012 at 7:38 am | Reply
  13. AntiCity

    There is censorship and media manipulation the world over....its just that west is more adept and skilful in doing it

    June 18, 2012 at 3:41 am | Reply
  14. Zionist

    We need to lie to keep world in order.
    That is biggest and most dangerous DICTATOR – one which sit inside brainwashed brains

    June 18, 2012 at 3:44 am | Reply
    • Machi

      You are the most ignorant islamist on this blog.

      June 19, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Reply
  15. ofer shelly

    Dont understand , for what you put this article?
    you now support dictatored cnn?

    June 18, 2012 at 4:53 am | Reply
  16. gavilansalvaje

    Why is there no mention of the dictators that have ruled the People's Republic of Chicago (Daley and Emanuel) and Illinois (Madigan)? These are officials who are de facto dictators, defying the United States of America.

    June 18, 2012 at 8:07 am | Reply
    • Ed

      Yeah! It's not like they were elected or anything. Oh wait...

      June 18, 2012 at 10:07 am | Reply
      • gavilansalvaje

        Ed, you must not be acquainted witih the Chicago Machine...

        June 18, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • Fearless Freep


      June 18, 2012 at 12:45 pm | Reply
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