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But the film "The Dictator" — and our imagination of dictators — is getting outdated.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

    This article is suppose to make me feel better about voting for Obama for a 2nd term? Nice try I could see thru this article like a clear window..

    June 18, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Reply
  2. Saywhatyoumean

    Thanks for the article. I'm sure it's a comfort to the millions of people brutally oppressed by dictators to know that we care so much about them. In fact, would all the people who demanded America invade Iraq because we just had to get an evil dictator out of power please send your regards to the people of Syria and such places where I guess their dictators just aren't as bad a Saddam was.

    June 18, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Reply
    • BillyBob

      Ah once again the left bring us Iraq. Your forgot to mention the dems, EU and the UN were banging the war drums long before W arrived.
      And are you that stupid to believe that Assad's army is doing all that killing in Syria?--There is absolutely no benefit for his army to be killing all of those ole soooooooo innocent civilians--my guess is it is ALQ, boots from Iran and the muslim brohood--look at the great time Egypt is still having -–
      I bet you think those UN peacekeepers in Africa are doing a great job-lets see, they have rob, rapped , burned and murdered innocent civilians-but since they wear the blue helments, that is ok with your kind

      June 18, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Reply
  3. BillyBob

    I swear that man in the front page photo looks like little barry's daddy-
    So why does CNN consider this news to be worthy of the front page-–maybe for the birdcage

    June 18, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Reply
    • CHANGE

      The taliban are are totally on wrong track in Killing other peoples..When you read QURAN you can convert whole USA to ISLAM IN PEACEFUL manner. not at all the JEWS. very truly

      June 18, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Reply
      • Farais

        truly, I no lie about islam telling us to kill, murder, abuse, lie...

        June 19, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
      • Ian

        So, does that mean you would only kill the jews?

        June 25, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  4. carlyjanew6


    June 18, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Reply
  5. Chris Lowenberg

    Ahh, we are on the cusp of a new Generation the "Kinder Gentler Dictator"...

    June 18, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Reply

    its simply amazing to me how easy it is to figure out which people that comment listen/watch Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Shaun Hannity. you people need to get your head out of the sand and actually stop listening/watching those hate mongers. please i would be better for our country

    June 18, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Reply

    The taliban are totally on wrong track in Killing other peoples..When you read QURAN you can convert whole USA to ISLAM IN PEACEFUL manner. not at all the JEWS. very truly

    June 18, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Reply
    • CHANGE

      When you have QURAN? You do not need miracle like Mosses and Jesus has to show their peoples.

      June 18, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Reply
      • Farais

        When you have Q'ran, you have death in the most nastiest way.

        June 19, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  8. Raj

    What about Hussein B. Obama. He's the biggest dictator of them all.

    June 18, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Reply
    • Machi

      How so??

      June 19, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Reply
  9. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    Where there are Resources; diamonds, gold, oil, copper and many other valuable minerals there are wars', the Continent of Africa has them all. So don't fool yourself, every country is trying to steal and take control by any means necessary and only a few enjoy the wealth that's stolen.

    June 18, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Reply
  10. B.Russell

    If you carefully study dictators that have came to power in the past 30 years you will see the CIA had a hand in their rise to power. When things get bad and fall apart, well we arrest or execute them. Check it out at your local library.

    June 18, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Reply
  11. Ace King

    Eritrean dictator does not allow any room for descent at all and he did not even make it to your article. You chose and picked the dictators that fit your point to write your article and you did not put into account the populations that are silently suffering only because they are poor and no supper power country is interested enough in it. Not fair! for Eritreans deserve a voice.

    June 18, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Reply
  12. hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

    USA is nothing else but hindu criminal democracy, based not on truth by founders of the country but of democracy based on hindu Judaism, filthy self center ism, secularism,in opposition to truth absolute enshrined in con–st–itut–ion of USA. Any one thinking otherwise is none but a hindu, fool, believing hinduism of Jew's, criminality of secular s any thing other than hindu criminal dictatorship.

    June 18, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Reply
    • GhostCoyote

      You forgot the corporations. And George Soros and the Koch Brothers. And Aliens. And Elvis' cousing Bigfoot

      June 18, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Reply
      • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

        Study hindu sanatan ism, filthy goon ism, hindu criminal dictatorship stems from hinduism, racism, way of hindu's ignorant s, hindu filthy Pharaoh's were man god's of hindu's, ignorant s and so were their hindu pot head priest, hindu, filthy divide of truth absolute between 2 hindu's, criminals, called trinity, justified by hindu Judaism, filthy secularism, denial of truth absolute by hindu Jew's, filthy secular s to make humanity their gentile, slaves. hindu Obama is nothing but another gentile, slave of hindu criminal Jew's sacrificing American blood and wealth to please his hindu sanatan Jew's , filthy shaman man god secular s.

        June 18, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  13. Justin

    This guy looks like his is squuzing one out.

    June 18, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Reply
    • Farais

      and you know that look–dont you!

      June 19, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Reply
  14. GhostCoyote

    It also blurs the line on what freedom actually is. Coupled with the report from Google about cencorship requests from Western Democracies, it appears that the Internet is not only moving some despotic societies towards freedom, but is also inching 'free' societies towards a 1984 style big brother state

    June 18, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Reply
  15. susanna king

    Take a good look at Obama and his gang

    June 18, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Reply
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      Bunch of hind's, gangsters to please their hindu criminal god father's, hindu Jew's, criminal secular s to impose hindu criminal dictator ship around the globe..

      June 18, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Reply
    • .

      Good point, Susanna...

      Make sure you vote in November.

      June 18, 2012 at 6:37 pm | Reply
    • Machi

      Muslims – the more they repeat things, the more they believe it.
      Try this:
      Chocolate is vanilla
      Chocolate is vanilla
      Chocolate is vanilla
      Chocolate is vanilla
      Chocolate is vanilla
      Chocolate is vanilla
      Chocolate is vanilla
      Chocolate is vanilla

      June 19, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Reply
  16. Tom

    They basically are stealing these ideas from us. We get to say whatever we want but if you go to far, they'll be burning you out of your log cabin and running your kids over with APC's. Actually, I can't think of a country that is way overdue for a revolution than the USA. Our political system is irretrievably broken and every politician is on the take in one form or another. I literally get nauseous every time I hear politics in the news. Save your breaths! I can't hear you anymore!

    June 18, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Reply
    • Machi

      Who is "us"

      June 19, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Reply
  17. Paul

    Fareed there is still the external propaganda that non friendlys label heads of state that do not cooperate.
    There are the internal conditions that the citizens and residents live with. Is it better now than before?
    We people tend to tolerate general peace and prosperity; even if the head of state is a dufuss and a menace to cultural and national non friendlys.

    June 18, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Reply
  18. hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

    American consti–tution is based on republic, with fundamentals enshrined in truth absolute, but have been moved to hindu, fundamental less democracy of hindu, fundamental less British democracy, hindu, criminal Pharaoh, other wise known as king, dictator man god, the truth absolute in violation of fundamental of truth, enshrined as God by the founding fathers., hindu criminal Democracy is a brain child of hindu criminal Pharisees, Jew's, secular's, denier of truth absolute, a word invented to hind, fool humanity.

    June 18, 2012 at 6:28 pm | Reply
  19. .

    Obama is a dictator.

    June 18, 2012 at 6:36 pm | Reply
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      and a hindu, terrorist, living and spreading hindu Judaism, filthy self center ism, secularism by hinduism, terrorism around the globe.

      June 18, 2012 at 6:49 pm | Reply
  20. Robot Monster

    Wow! You folks have such keen intellect!

    June 18, 2012 at 7:05 pm | Reply
  21. Josh P.

    Perhaps they learn well from us,how to spread garbage propaganda,such as Gaddafi giving Viagra to his troops,by the way what pharmaceutical company did he place that order.

    June 18, 2012 at 9:16 pm | Reply
  22. clarinet

    Didn't Obama just evolve too?

    June 18, 2012 at 9:49 pm | Reply
  23. Rodger Crowe

    Once again, FZ thinks he is qualified to comment on any topic, but he cannot possibly be knowledgeable enough to be a serious commentator on anything. (And CNN exploits him in this regard...CNN...do you know what this really means? I doubt it!). So, as I have said before, I have stopped reading anything that is published by him on CNN.

    June 18, 2012 at 11:03 pm | Reply
  24. gopdina

    CNN, you'll do anything to protect Obama, including posting this piece on how great tyrants are so that we will feel better about our own dictator. Amazing.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:42 am | Reply
  25. UallRwrong

    These guys wipe themselves with rocks and leaves. To defeat them is not an accomplishment. It happens to be something that is long overdue.

    June 19, 2012 at 4:14 am | Reply
  26. Alex

    What about Saudi Arabia? Why CNN don't write about them?

    June 19, 2012 at 8:26 am | Reply
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