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But the film "The Dictator" — and our imagination of dictators — is getting outdated.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. paullyvenne

    1/2 of these people posting don't know what a true dictator is.

    June 18, 2012 at 8:30 am | Reply
    • orlando

      Where is Fidel & Raul Castro in this story? 53 years in power.

      June 18, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Reply
    • gavilansalvaje

      Do you know what a dictator is? Have you lived under martial rule?

      June 18, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Reply
  2. leon

    Why does US not talk about its own dictatorship here in USA? For one, Government makes us all buy health insurance. And if you think this media is not censored(CNN) then you are a fool. Try to start E-mailing or talking about weapons or bombs, FBI will listening to all of your conversations and you will be watched closely.
    With the uprising in other countries where people are not happy with their governments do you think uprising like that would be possible in USA, the government would stop it in its tracks, just like they did to a "occupy wall street" protesters. Invented a joke for an excuse and stopped it, yet if it were occurring in other country, US would say it is NOT DEMOCRATIC.

    June 18, 2012 at 9:07 am | Reply
    • heather

      everyone uses health care. so to pay in is your duty so that everyone has the "right" to it. kind of like everyone uses the roads. we all pay for the roads. just because you don't own a car doesn't mean you don't have to pay for them. at some point you are going to use the roads like when your house is burning down and the fire department drives to your house to put out the flames and takes you to the hospital so you can be cared for. but I am sure you want both services but don't' want to pay for either!

      June 18, 2012 at 9:55 am | Reply
      • cobra129

        Heather, I don't provide you with a car nor do I pay for your drivers license. Don't want to pay the tolls, don't drive, its not a right.........Everyone uses healthcare? No, heathcare is not a 'use', its the responsibility of each individual. Please tell mewhere it is "MY" duty to support you own personal healthcare and health issues. As for a "right', please tell me where and who specifies healthcare as a Right. Soryy Heather, its neither a right nor a duty for someone else to pay for your own responsibilities.

        June 18, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
      • NOT MY CHAIR

        Cobra- everyone needs health care at some point and if they do not have a plan the insurance companies pass it along to the government which you will end up paying more for in the long run. please learn how the system works before you try to fit it. also your taxes are being used for mass transit which is you paying for other people to get around. we are a country which means we are only strong as our weakest link and we need to help those that cant them selves for the better of the entire country

        June 18, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • Fearless Freep

      Dictatorship ?
      Here in America, if we dont like our president, we vote for another one.
      You be idiot ?

      June 18, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Reply
      • JM

        Sure, but you don't really have a choice of who to elect because the possible candidates are selected for you by a very rich elite. It's not really your choice, you are just made to think that it is. Our whole so-called democracy has been subverted by money and it is nothing but a sham now. That is one of the reasons we have an unsolvable debt problem. Guess who benefits from our debt? The banks that own the Federal Reserve. We are their cash cow and they won't allow that to change. Nobody that you can elect will change it because your choices for candidates have already been filtered.

        June 19, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
  3. jk

    "So today's cleverest dictators have evolved. They allow a certain amount of dissent, as an escape valve." What do you think the US with its First Amendment has been doing for years? Our rights are always taken away when they really truly matter–during wars and race riots and so on. They're there to blow off steam, and nothing else.

    June 18, 2012 at 9:25 am | Reply
  4. No NonSense

    Fareed, Dont try to sell stories which are biased. All your stories project that USA is the GOD and rest are Dictators/Socialist. Usa economy is doing good while Euro Zone will break. USA elections were never ridged and where ever there is a president who is not a puppet of USA, the elections were mass fraud.

    June 18, 2012 at 9:28 am | Reply
    • Ed

      Wow. If you're any older than 12, I feel sorry for your lack of comprehension. Where specifically in this article, or in any other, does Fareed depict the US as God?

      June 18, 2012 at 10:04 am | Reply
      • MIchael X

        Right On, Brother. That Square must be tripping.

        June 18, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • JM

      What do you expect? The guy has to make a living. If he writes something ugly and negative about Ted Turner or the USA, he will most likely get fired and blacklisted. If you expect independent reporting, go to the blogs of people who don't report for a living. Link TV, on satellite, is also a more independent source.

      June 19, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Reply
  5. Julian Assange

    Does it apply to American supported dictators?

    June 18, 2012 at 10:05 am | Reply
  6. giggity

    as usual a bull cr@p article from a m@r@n

    June 18, 2012 at 10:11 am | Reply
    • Ed

      His bowel movements are probably more insightful than you.

      June 18, 2012 at 10:26 am | Reply
      • MIchael X

        And I would presume them to be better looking also

        June 18, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
      • JAL

        Fareed is the only sane person in the room, I assure you.

        June 18, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  7. Joe Clark

    I do not believe dictators ever give up any ground while they rule. There may be the perception that they do offer some limited freedom from time to time but its only a gimic employed to control the limited number of people who might otherwise become unruly.

    June 18, 2012 at 10:53 am | Reply
    • orlando

      Correct, just look at Cuba.

      June 18, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Reply
  8. tedy

    u miss one name prime minister meels zenawi , he copied exactly china's way but smartly upto misleading obama. very recently barrak give credit to this dictatorwhile many journalists are in jail.

    June 18, 2012 at 11:24 am | Reply
  9. nc1965

    Headline: How dictators have evolved.

    There is a quick way to know this. Look no further than Wisconsin.

    June 18, 2012 at 11:40 am | Reply
    • Fearless Freep

      Good one.

      June 18, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Reply
    • Keith Long

      You do realize don't you that there was an election in Wisconsin? It just didn't turn out the way you wanted it to.

      June 18, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Reply
  10. Chaotician

    The conventional wisdom is that the "best" government is a benevolent dictator! There is an obvious problem, namely that benevolent thing; but given the utter corruption, the sheer incompetence, the abysmal capability to govern...the US style "democracy" is an even worse failure! And with the growing corporatocracy formerly known as fascism, becoming not only global but with enhanced capbilities to control and manipulate both "voters" and governments..this may all become mute!

    June 18, 2012 at 11:45 am | Reply
  11. SPower

    You write: "Dictators have gotten smart, Dobson writes, to keep pace with changes in technology."

    You're absolutely SPOT ON! Obama is keeping up with changes in technology!

    June 18, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Reply
    • Fearless Freep

      At least Obama can spell his own name.
      That last clod had to winny three times like his horse.

      June 18, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Reply
  12. BOBBY

    They evolve because the people in these countries are stupid.

    June 18, 2012 at 12:09 pm | Reply
  13. Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

    How dictators have evolved? Well, they lie to the UN, the world community and the American people about bogus and nonexistent WMD's in Iraq and invade, destabilize and murder 1 million Iraqi civilians in cold blood with no repercussions! Hey, don't blame Assad, GWB has murdered more civilians than Assad and he continue to do so today! That is how dictators evolve Fareed!

    June 18, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Reply
    • MIchael X

      Give assad time – and Iranian /Russian Weapons and I bet that ol boy and his receeding hairline will break all records for genocide – at least on a per capita basis as nobody will ever break Stalin or Hitler's absolute count of carnage. GWB is definitely not even in the running with Iraq and Afghanistan although he gave it his best shot – now if Cheney had been running the show I'm sure he'd have the body counts he could brag about at his neighborhood Craker Barrel

      June 18, 2012 at 12:26 pm | Reply
  14. Jim DeLapp

    Oh no, they can rise very insidiously, a wolf in sheeps clothing. It is going on today, in the presidency of the USA

    June 18, 2012 at 12:16 pm | Reply
  15. devair verginio dos santos

    Hi, it is so easy to show the dictator whose names are in the internet or youtube. I d like to know those who steal you , take you life and cheat you with promises. Here in Brazil our dictators take another name. Politicians, men of the pop and they are never unveild. We live a life disguised and nobody is punished. We need to stop making these kind of wrong things, cause in the future we will live a EGIPTIAN, SYRIA, LIBIA AND OTHERS. As says a philosopher, in this world, there are no profit or harmful, there are only consequences.

    June 18, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Reply
  16. 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 muslims country from freedom, through their army and dictator.

    June 18, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Reply
  17. jaimie

    Nothing a few drones cant take care of.

    June 18, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Reply
  18. US Citizen

    Fareed Zakaria's article seems biased. There is an assumption directly infered that lead antagonists of the USA are all dictatorships, such as China and Russia. These 2 countries allow thier citizens to come and go as they please, and to immigrate if desired. I know Russia has democratic elections. Syria has a history of short lived democracy, but coups, including US backed coups changed that. What this article does is target antaganists of washinton DC and claim a severe moral inferiority of the target. What this article does NOT do is inlcude the severe moral imperfections of the US govt. These imperfections include practically no real non-aligned political or anti-govt. movements to form, and stifling any attempt of the "little people" to act in any way contrary to the dictates of the all-mighty US govt. This is why there is no anti-war movement in the US of any substance. Any attempt to make a real anti-war movement is immediately quashed by a network of pro-government idiots (shock troops) and possibly being set-up in some legal problems. Just like in a dictatorship. One advantage the Chinese, Russians and other alleged victims of world dictatorships have over US citizens, is that when they leave thier contry, they are free. The US citizen can be hunted down by his goverment and if in the wrong country, sent back to the USA for a "fair trial" for you name it.
    God bless!

    June 18, 2012 at 12:23 pm | Reply
  19. Murph

    Well, we are witnessing the evolution of the worlds next dictator-his name is Barack Obama...think I'm crazy??? Just stayed tuned! If we don't remove him, we are crazy. If we do, he'll go to his home African country and be a dictator there. But you can be sure-a dictator, he will be!

    June 18, 2012 at 12:27 pm | Reply
    • John Smith

      You are crazy. Stop breathing please. You are wasting this planet's precious oxygen.

      June 18, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Reply
    • billybart

      I'm no Obama fan, but you are just like the guys that hang out at the post office with pictures of obama in the hitler mustache. For every person you convince to go with you you convince two more that obama is better than the alternative you preach.

      Therefore, I must come to the conclusion that you are actually pro-obama as you actually do more to help him than to hurt him..

      Be gone with you.

      June 18, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Reply
    • Fearless Freep

      You pooped yourself again.

      June 18, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Reply
  20. matthewthegroves

    So Joseph Kony has been upgraded from a guerrilla fighter to a dictator, I am sure the Ugandans will love that considering they are sick and tired of being portrayed as weak. How is Joseph Kony any different than the former guerrilla of a president Uganda currently has? He keeps giving himself term extensions...sounds like sensationalizing the Kony story will leave Uganda divided on foreign powers, and a Dictator president with a US trained royal guard, nice. Not the first time this has happened, won't be the last...

    June 18, 2012 at 12:28 pm | Reply
  21. John Smith

    Funny that this article comes with a photo of Joseph Cony on CNN's front page. The guy was never a head of state, let along a dictator. But to stupid Americans he remains the only familiar modern African figure. This is so depressing.

    June 18, 2012 at 12:29 pm | Reply
  22. Deep State

    Fareed calls Joseph Kony a dictator (he isn't) but neglects to mention Yoweri Museveni the "President for Life" of Uganda. Quality analysis here...

    June 18, 2012 at 12:29 pm | Reply
  23. S Y Janjua

    The mind of Zakiria is controlled by jews lobby in USA

    June 18, 2012 at 12:29 pm | Reply
    • Fearless Freep

      Then you better send him your tin foil hat.

      June 18, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Reply
      • Farais


        June 19, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  24. charles bowen

    Its all about Population Growth and intolerance for values of others..... Africa will always be just Africa... Tribal alliance and religion divide the populace making it ungouvernable.....Where there is no compromise there is no way to govern... Make Peace and leave the tribal mentality behind...... Charles Bowen Solomon Stone

    June 18, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Reply
  25. Roger Ogilvy Thornhill

    interesting perspective!

    June 18, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Reply
  26. U First

    Evil people exists. That's a fact. When they get power, they already have a heart of abuse and horror. Seems they have friends who have the cash (as in drug dealers and countries with weapons) so it's very easy to make the connection with the cash and the evil. Then they exploit, terrorize, and kill. But once they kill a person, they can't kill them again. The Devil and his demons enter a person and escalate the evil.

    If you take off the "D" in Devil, you have evil.

    There it is.

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

      That works in English, but if you take the 'd' off diablo you only get iablo. Likewise, take the 't' of teufel and you only get eufel.

      June 18, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Reply
      • Farais

        nd if you take the whatever in الشيطان, you end up with something anti world, anti semitic, anti everything.

        June 19, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  27. Bill Cole

    This text is a piece of garbage, as is usually the case with Fareed's writing. No matter whether writing for an academic readership in Foreign Affairs or for the general public on your blog, he always messes up the facts, mix up the names (mentioning Kony in an article about the evolution of dictators?) and roots his analysis in gross generalities.

    June 18, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Reply
    • Fearless Freep



      1.A ruler with total power over a country, typically one who has obtained power by force.
      2.A person who tells people what to do in an autocratic way or who determines behavior in a particular sphere.

      Zakaria is right on.

      June 18, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Reply
  28. Toby McDugan

    "Evolved" seems to be the word of the day for dictators and Obama!

    June 18, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Reply
    • Fearless Freep

      Are you Republicans still devolving ?

      June 18, 2012 at 1:05 pm | Reply
  29. CNNuthin

    Dear CNN, Poor choice of words. Now you will get every Re-Bible-can jumping on this article to compare Kony with Obama on his "evolving" view points. You also will start an argument of Pro/Anti-Evolution which will completely distract everyone from the story. Nice work. Maybe try to keep up with current events better.

    June 18, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Reply
  30. CNNuthin

    News Flash: Obama says he will help out the homeless. Next Weeks CNN Headline: Most Global Dictators are Homeless.

    June 18, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Reply
    • Fearless Freep

      News flash:

      You are a moron.
      Seek help.

      June 18, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Reply
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