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But the film "The Dictator" — and our imagination of dictators — is getting outdated.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 (293 Responses)
  1. ElectricLion

    And, of course, no discussion of the world's dictators can be truly complete without mentioning the five Republican dictators in Michigan.

    June 19, 2012 at 8:28 am | Reply
  2. capt Jack TheLadde

    "ello People" 🙂 This reporter is so blind ! and death !
    dose he not use the internet, to find "Fact's" how much dose he get paid a year ? he is quick to moan about other country's ! but never dose he tell the truth about the USA, UK, Isreal and all the truly bad crap that these countrys corse !
    i hope mr Zakiria read's these post's and start's to feel some shame about the word's he writes !!! "PEACE" 🙂

    June 19, 2012 at 9:32 am | Reply
  3. Hahahahahahahaha

    This Halloween I'm going to put a potato on my dick and go as a "Dictator"! Hahahahahahahaha

    June 19, 2012 at 9:51 am | Reply
  4. Nina

    example of dictator:

    General Zia-ul-Haq - Pakistan 1976 – 1988
    Abdullah of Saudi Arabia - Saudi Arabia 2005-present[1]
    Idi Amin - Uganda 1971 – 1979
    Hafez al-Assad - Syria 1970 – 2000
    Bashar Assad - Syria 2000-present
    Fulgencio Batista - Cuba 1952 – 1959
    Jean-Bédel Bokassa - Central African Republic 1966 – 1979
    Omar Bongo - Gabon 1967-present
    Leonid Brezhnev - USSR 1968-1982
    Fidel Castro - Cuba 1959 – 2008
    Nicolae Ceausescu - Romania 1967 – 1989
    Blaise Compaoré - Burkina Faso 1987-present
    Chiang Kai-shek - China, Taiwan
    Porfirio Diaz - Mexico 1876 – 1911
    Engelbert Dollfuss - Austria 1933-34

    June 19, 2012 at 11:09 am | Reply
    • American

      You forgot Obama!

      June 19, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Reply
      • BBC

        You forgot the corrupted CEO in the Wall Street, the falling medias.

        June 19, 2012 at 11:40 pm |
  5. Nina

    François Duvalier - "Papa Doc" – Haiti
    Jean Claude Duvalier - "Baby Doc" – Haiti
    Francisco Franco Bahamonde - Spain 1939 – 1975
    Alberto Fujimori - Peru 1990 – 2000
    Klement Gottwald - Czechoslovakia 1948 – 1953
    Adolf Hitler - Germany 1933 – 1945
    Enver Hoxha - Albania 1944-1985
    Ho Chi Minh - North Vietnam 1954 – 1969
    Erich Honecker - German Democratic Republic 1971 – 1989
    Hu Jintao - Peoples Republic of China 2002-present
    Saddam Hussein - Iraq 1979 – 2003
    Kim Il-Sung - North Korea 1948 – 1994
    Wojciech Jaruzelski - Poland 1981-1989
    Kim Jong Il - North Korea 1994 –
    Islom Karimov – Uzbekistan 1991-present
    Ayatollah Khomeini - Iran 1979 – 1989
    Vladimir Lenin - USSR 1917 – 1924
    Alexander Lukashenko - Belarus 1994-present
    Mao Zedong - China 1949 – 1976

    June 19, 2012 at 11:10 am | Reply
  6. Nina

    Ferdinand Marcos - Philippines 1972 – 1986
    Mengistu Haile Mariam - Ethiopia 1977 – 1991
    Ioannis Metaxas - Greece 1936-1941
    Hosni Mubarak - Egypt 1981-present
    Robert Mugabe - Zimbabwe 1980-present
    Pervez Musharraf - Pakistan 1998-2008
    Benito Mussolini - Italy 1922 – 1943
    Miklos Horthy de Nagybánya - Hungary 1920-1944
    Francisco Macías Nguema - Equatorial Guinea 1968 – 1979
    Teodoro Obiang Nguema - Equatorial Guinea 1979-present
    Denis Sassou Nguesso - Republic of the Congo 1979-present
    Manuel Noriega - Panama 1983 – 1989
    Juan Carlos Onganía - Argentina 1966 – 1973
    Henri Philippe Pétain - France 1940 – 1944
    Simon Petlyura - Ukraine
    Józef Pilsudski - Poland 1926 – 1935
    Augusto Pinochet - Chile 1973 – 1990
    Pol Pot - Cambodia 1975 – 1978
    Miguel Primo de Rivera - Spain 1923 – 1930
    Efraín Ríos Montt - Guatemala 1982 – 1983
    Gustavo Rojas Pinilla - Colombia 1953 – 1957
    Muammar Abu Minyar al-Qadhafi - Libya 1969 –
    Vidkun Quisling - Norway 1940 – 1945
    António de Oliveira Salazar - Portugal 1932 – 1968
    Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna - Mexico
    Mobutu Sese Seko - Zaire 1967 – 1997
    Anastasio Somoza Debayle - Nicaragua
    Anastasio Somoza García - Nicaragua
    Luis Somoza Debayle - Nicaragua

    June 19, 2012 at 11:11 am | Reply
  7. Nina

    There are many more.
    They come in all sizes and all colours. There is no real differentiation except for the mindset.
    A lack of education is a great place for them to evolve.

    June 19, 2012 at 11:15 am | Reply
  8. Barry

    They left out our dear leader... Obama??

    June 19, 2012 at 11:19 am | Reply
  9. jane

    You notice they are all male.
    Maybe, just maybe, it is time for females to go men how leadership can be positive if you listen to the people.
    Of course, there must be an extensive global education program first.

    June 19, 2012 at 11:56 am | Reply
  10. Socrates

    I noticed that Mr Fareed Zakaria named Chavez as a dictator, well like it or not the guy has been elected democratically by his people.Jimmy Carter and others dignitaries when to every Venezuelan elections and they were satisfied on its fairness. So, he is not a dictator he is an elected president. You don't like him, too bad. I am glad that Nina made a list of famous dictators who polluted this planet with their presence. I can add that most of those dictators were protegees of the US. Surprise.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Reply
    • Artemis Eneldo

      Exactly. If we like it or not, the Venezuelans have a right to elect their own leaders. Chavez is the democratically elected president of a democratic state. Fareed resorts to name calling in lieu of journalism. And those calling Pres. Obama "dictator" are also incorrect.

      Dictator – A ruler with total power over a country, typically one who has obtained power by force.

      June 20, 2012 at 11:28 pm | Reply
    • SillyBilly

      Which ones were protegees of the USA?

      June 24, 2012 at 10:24 pm | Reply
  11. Bassem

    Good article but I think it missed the most important new tactic dictators employ.. trying to keep their army and police in the back rows and arming civilian thugs instead to do the dirty work for them.. claiming u have no control over these groups and it's just loyalists and opposition sorting things out

    June 19, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Reply
  12. 100 % ETHIO

    The Jewish are the main obstacles of peace, between US and the rest of the World.

    In reality, you don't need to be against Jewish, to stop their evil activities: examples; they got access in US 'Nuclear Bombs and they stole the ideas and sold it to Middle East and China,
    They used European passports, to murder others,....

    So, it's better to change their Mind by setting-up and applying new rules. Either they have to obey or face the consequences.
    They should know that, America and its allies suffered a lot because of supporting Jews.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Reply
  13. 100 % ETHIO

    The Jewish keep telling the World,"Jewish are smart". So, why they weren't smart during Roman Empire and Nazzi era?

    How about, if US not supporting and not against Jewish, what will be the consequences of Jewish?????

    June 19, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Reply
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      Jew means self centered, a hindu, denier of truth absolute, also propagated to hind humanity as Judaism, Hobo's, self centered, with quality of a pig, self centered, pretending to be Israelite, but hindu's, pagans of Egypt and Persia.

      June 19, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Reply
  14. JM

    The greatest dictatorships of all are those that disguise themselves as democracy. That is the kind that we have in America. It is a system where an elite group of rich guys calls the shots and makes us think that we are actually in control. The media is controlled and information is filtered/fed to us to manipulate our opinions. The choice of candidates that we can elect is controlled by very rich people. The courts and politicians always favor the very rich and the big corporations. People from our highest levels of government are tied to big corporations and they migrate back and forth between executive corporate positions and government positions. All the money in our economy is backed by debt to the Fed, a private corporation owned by banks. Laws are passed to force people to purchase products from big corporations, for example, mandatory insurance laws. The list goes on and on. We need not look far to find a dictatorship.

    June 19, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Reply
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      Way of hindu Jew's, criminal self centered, secular s to hind, fool Americans in their hindu Judaism, filthy secularism.

      June 19, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Reply
  15. Adam

    Come on Zakaria! You are dancing the tango by yourself and it is making you dizzy. You speak of dictators and how they came to evolve?!?!? Can you explain Egypt and the power grids of the American financed and Israeli controlled Egyptian Army with their generals who have most of the economy in their hands? You said evolving dictators?!?! shouldn't it be western evolved dictators?!?!

    June 19, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Reply
  16. Kalyan

    The best dictators are those who provide an illusion of hope or a diversion to the masses.

    June 19, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Reply
  17. sam kohen

    There are dictators who saw real concern and compassion to their people. A good exampe is former President Jean Claude Duvalier of Haiti who thanks to him gave Haiti universal health care and education. Look at the country today. He truly was Haitis greatest president.

    June 19, 2012 at 7:50 pm | Reply
  18. RickBangkok

    There are numerous writers who warned us years ahead of the fact about dictators and their penchant for cunning, baffling and manipulative uses of technology. Kafka, Orwell, Koestler come to mind. Gunpowder, the Catherine While, the Iron Maiden, the guillotine, the gallows, the firing squad and even the coliseum are technologies used by dictators. Maybe the most vile are taxes, usury and the credit report. The recent dictators compete against their enemies who for a moment use wireless communications and the other technologies so called industrialized democracies made available in the marketplace when it suited them. The dictators have often all been able to shut it down with the cooperation of the providers. Google caves in to China or other nations. Look how Burma or Singapore uses technology against its people as both are one party rule states. We classify one a dictatorship and one not.

    June 19, 2012 at 11:10 pm | Reply
    • BBC

      Who decide who’re the dictators ? The answer is another dictator.

      June 19, 2012 at 11:35 pm | Reply
      • Larry of the Dune

        WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOW sooooooooooooooooooooo deeeeeeeeeeeep!

        June 20, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
  19. TiredOfPaying

    The unfortunate truth is that a Dictator can actually get things done. True, they may not do things that YOU want, but they will get things accomplished. Compared to our do-nothing Congress, the power that Corporations have and the influence Lobbyists have I would be willing to give a Dictator a chance. Too bad we would not know if they were 'Benelovent' until they had complete control.

    June 20, 2012 at 8:54 am | Reply
  20. information

    this guy thinks he is an expert at everything

    June 20, 2012 at 10:00 am | Reply
  21. MMR

    I just hope the new dictators have a zany fashion sense and oddities to be fascinating. If they're as boring as our US presidents, what's the point?

    June 20, 2012 at 12:26 pm | Reply
  22. Onikami

    dictators are everywhere and will continue to be. you kill or oust one and twenty more pop up like gophers. power seekers will continue to seek power. the only reason WW3 has not happened yet is because not all of them have nukes or decent armies. technology now moves to fast for most backwater countries to keep up with.

    June 20, 2012 at 7:46 pm | Reply
  23. Larry

    Nice to see the kinder, gentler spin on dictatorship provided by Zakaria. Just one more voice advocating an Obama dictatorship, I'm sure.

    June 20, 2012 at 8:07 pm | Reply
  24. stonefossil

    Mr. Fareed Zakaria, You are over stretch.

    June 20, 2012 at 8:50 pm | Reply
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