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But the film "The Dictator" — and our imagination of dictators — is getting outdated.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

    I know you are a Muslim, Fareed, but are you a socialist? Can the two exist in one being as a philosophy of life?

    June 18, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Reply
  2. Video Game

    When the evil power is super power what you can expect as world peace

    June 18, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Reply
    • Farais

      what you can expect?

      June 19, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Reply
  3. student

    Yes, but how about the U.S.'s dictatorship? why are we censored from it? In other words, why do we always trash talk about other countries yet never conjure up the composure to talk about our own problems in such objective tone? Zakaria we could direly use some of this to crack down our media (CNN included).

    June 18, 2012 at 12:45 pm | Reply
  4. Citizen

    Wonder how Dictator Obama would respond if US Citizens began a tax revolt to protest his unilateral amnesty fiat.

    June 18, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Reply
    • Fearless Freep

      Its not amnesty, its a good idea.
      Go back to Fox, all your friends are there.

      June 18, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Reply
      • Citizen

        It IS amnesty and a BAD idea.

        So, why do you peddle lies, freep?

        Why don't you go back to watching Ed Schultz and touching yourself in an impure manner.

        June 18, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
      • Machi

        citizen- you mean you dont d i d d l e?
        Impure manner – hahahahaha!

        June 19, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  5. Video Game

    Americans soldier behind the ISAF umberalla. play vieo game by killing 26 soldiers of Pakistan army.

    June 18, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Reply
  6. billybart

    Great article Mr. Z. Very innovative take on an interesting topic. It is difficult to watch someof the things that go on in the owrld today and not want an immediate change and certainly failure happens regularly from this perspective, on the other hand improvements do happen and we must keep pressing for change, it sometimes comes from unexpected places.

    June 18, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Reply
  7. weiss

    Why NO mentionn of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain??? Oh thats right WE prefer to do business with " cooperative " Dictators ...

    June 18, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Reply
  8. Sagebrush Shorty

    We have one evolving right here in America.

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

      You are right.
      His name is Romney.
      Keep him out of the white house.

      June 18, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Reply
  9. CW

    I clicked on the headline thinking this might be about Obama....

    June 18, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Reply
  10. josh rogen

    if the USA had a dictator he would look like Obama

    June 18, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Reply
    • Machi

      How so?

      June 19, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Reply
  11. Fubarack

    We used to be shocked when we would see dictatorial countries try to control the internet, control media, put up posters of their leader on buildings, sing songs about them, have programs to turn in your neighbors for not agreeing with the party, take over private companies, bypass political procedure, etc. Now all we have to do is look at this administration to see all that and more.

    June 18, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Reply
  12. CHANGE

    American president call for CHANGE in election campaign? But the change went ZERO against Jews lobby policy for USA. What a great election WIN Jews Dictator for the American tax payer..

    June 18, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Reply
  13. Angali

    Zakaria forgot to put the USA, Rwanda, Uganda, Israel, UK among the most violent dictatorships of the World. Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Museveni of Uganda helped by USA-UK-Israel have killed 8 millions congolese but CNN doesn't call them dictators. Shame on you!

    June 18, 2012 at 1:15 pm | Reply
    • cw

      our government is not ruled by an individual so however you feel about the US dictatorship is inaccurate

      June 20, 2012 at 6:13 pm | Reply
  14. del train

    Dictators do not evolve. They dictate and opress at ALL times. There is no exception. They are not stupid and they are in tune to whatever it takes to be in charge. The only way to remove is by violent uprising or military force period. Sometimes Dictators are worth keeping in place for a little while until the time is right for them to be killed. There are too many trouble spots in the world....

    By they way...Obama's act is unilateral...He may be on the right track sympathetically...it's not the way to do it. He has the post british clonial mentality he can't shake...He has to go...The problem is the Senate is a do nothing Senate. Alot of the leadership there doesnot agree with eachother. It is too left of center. The Democrats are split because they forced the Healthcare issue down peoples throats in a very dictatorial way...

    June 18, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Reply
  15. del train

    The Democtratic leadership also forced the banking rules that we are living with today. They are forcing the bank fees to rise. They are making banks not lend on purpose. The regular small business or individual who wants to start a 2 or 3 person compnay can't anymore. It's not allowed. The regulations make it so it's better not to refi. It's better to forclose because that way the FDIC doesn't see it as a problem loan. They see it as outstanding issues being resolved instead of how it should be which is triying to help people. The Democreats think the way to fix something... is to take it away, when the going gets tough the Democrats look like Dictators...at least the Rpublicans let you fend for yourself instead of puting obstacles.

    June 18, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Reply
    • CHANGE

      Very true, atleast americans now understand that there is true Jews agenda behind all policy of SLAVE United states of America.

      June 18, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Reply
  16. John Smith

    Fareed Zakaria is a hard core socialist, anti-semite, and born YES man. I would take everything he says as self promotion for his own personal agenda and nothing more.

    June 18, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Reply
    • CHANGE

      100% agreed

      June 18, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Reply
    • Machi

      What did Fareed say that was anti-isemitic?

      June 19, 2012 at 12:16 pm | Reply
  17. Rabbit One

    for all your sensitive academia – at the end of the day a human rights crisis is still a human rights crisis – big or small

    June 18, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Reply
  18. don

    More bull from the media. Dictators can not exist with out a strong support group and they have tobe centrist in the group. The whole problem is thatevery body wants to believe this lie that it is only one man causing the problem and that why revelutions fail to corect the problem.

    June 18, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Reply
  19. Ruspanic

    Joseph Kony is not a dictator. He has never been the leader of Uganda or any other country.

    June 18, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Reply
  20. del train

    Yes strong support group and the alliance or control of the military. In Egypt for example, the military knows that Mubarak is too old and the son is not the one to follow...In North Korea, the son is the one too follow. In Cuba there were two brothers in synche. In Syria, there is nobody to follow, it will be a bloodbath.

    June 18, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Reply
  21. oldbikerbeatch

    Dear Fareed,
    But where are the evaluations of your dear friend Barack? Certainly you must admit that sweet Barack has demonstrated more tendencies suggesting dictatorial tendencies than the Americans that have preceded him as President of The United States... You have presented Africa, Russia, China and Argentina as models of countries under dictatorial control – yet, to my very great surprise, you haven't mentioned a single Islamic leader? Why is that? And, come to think of it, you seem to neglect an evaluation of how your Imams assume utter and absolute control over all aspects of life in Islamic nations – but that isn't dictatorial control? My, my... I do believe I find you less than intellectually honest.

    June 18, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Reply
  22. del train

    I am reading to the right the Twitter and Farred even says it himseld without knowing...He cites an article that says in China it's OK to criticize but when to mnany people sart to feel the same way then its OK to kill people...remember that's what they do...let's see what the Chnese do with 'that' politician in custody...

    June 18, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Reply
  23. Paul Kogut

    I'm sorry, But I think most of you miss the point. This is a brilliant article that really portends to the evolution of the nation state in the context of history. I am not always a fan of the author for opinions. At the same time I feel his commentary is succinct and to the point. Always well written. Unlike your silly complaints over meaningless trivial facts, he creates a beautiful big picture as to a mural of history looking forward. I commend you Mr. Zakaria for a job well done!

    June 18, 2012 at 1:55 pm | Reply
  24. del train

    Remember how cool Bush was about all the protests...the marches and all that.

    June 18, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Reply
  25. CW

    Kony is now a head of state? This guy is a bad ass.

    June 18, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Reply
  26. dscon

    we have a richard tater in the whitehouse here.

    June 18, 2012 at 2:05 pm | Reply
  27. Cassarit

    I'd rather be a dictator than a pig like Zakaria who does the work of the Jews.

    June 18, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Reply
    • NOT MY CHAIR

      that is such a stupid comment i dont even know where to start tearing it apart.... so you would rather be a dictator that rules a country than a journalist for cnn? wow tough decision their you mong

      June 18, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Reply
  28. sam

    What? You mean dictators are people who exist in the same ever-changing time as the rest of us? I thought dictators were trapped in a world where they rode around on chariots.

    June 18, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Reply
  29. Merchantilist

    This is nothing new at all. During the Park Chung-hee regime in South Korea, small numbers of opposition party members were encouraged to sit in parliament to show that the was descent but to give the appearance that the majority of people supported the regime. It also allowed the South Korean government to claim to western powers that it was a democracy, even though in actuality the opposition members had no power and the elections were rigged enough to ensure the ruling parties would stay in power.

    June 18, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Reply
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