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But the film "The Dictator" — and our imagination of dictators — is getting outdated.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

    Indians will play the key role in American Elections!

    June 22, 2012 at 7:37 am | Reply
  2. prabhu

    Ecuador Government will give permission to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to live in their Country

    June 22, 2012 at 7:38 am | Reply
  3. prabhu

    West Indies will win the T20 match against England on 24nd June 2012!

    June 22, 2012 at 7:38 am | Reply
  4. prabhu

    Sri Lanka will win the 1st Test match against Pakistan!

    June 22, 2012 at 7:39 am | Reply
  5. prabhu

    England will win the third ODI against West Indies on 22nd June 2012

    June 22, 2012 at 7:39 am | Reply
  6. prabhu

    Sri Lanka will win the Test series against Pakistan – 2012!

    June 22, 2012 at 7:41 am | Reply
    • Farah

      It's a relief to find soenmoe who can explain things so well

      July 6, 2014 at 1:44 am | Reply
    • Raja

      If the person was your feinrd, they would probably be happy to hear from you. It would be a pleasant surprise to reconnect.If they don't reply, it could be the wrong email address or an email address that they no longer use.I use it every day.

      July 21, 2014 at 12:01 pm | Reply
    • Jordan

      I think this is just a rumor, but you may as well try since you are definitely far enugoh along that you don't have anything to worry about. I wouldn't eat more than a serving or so every few hours. Personally, I think walking is more likely to help than anything else

      July 25, 2014 at 6:58 pm | Reply
  7. prabhu

    England will win the T20 match against West Indies on 24th June 2012!

    June 22, 2012 at 7:41 am | Reply
  8. prabhu

    Microsoft will introduce Own phone by 2014!

    June 22, 2012 at 7:42 am | Reply
  9. deniz boro

    But why would they a these people crave for a dictatorship position?...Rather than enjoy life?. Are they after money? There are easier ways. Why would they feel the need to impose their opinion on others? Is this healthy? Read Eric Fromm (Art of Loving; Fear of Flying), a psychologist who studied sado-masocist tendencies in society. Some people realy do enjoy being led by a dictator.

    June 22, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Reply
    • China watch

      This dictators grew up in a not so loving environment. In case of China, Mao engineered it's new generation of people will grow up without siblings (one child policy) and force them to work in labor camps. See factories example factories in China for Iphone and Ipad. It's labor dorms have netting. Young chinese jumps to their death. These dictators are psychopath. They feel no guilt and moral responsibility. You see this kind of Psychopath dictators as a CEO in all of China's state controlled companies. These CEO's just doesn't care. When their workers jump to their death, they just install nets all over the building. With no siblings, no opportunity to develop unique bondage that only a sibling can offer.

      June 24, 2012 at 8:37 am | Reply
  10. TopView20

    The news in the USA is so biased often blatantly misleading, that I wonder how or why anyone would believe that Americans are not among those who are controlled by dictators. Americans believe what they are told to believe. Sad. Freedom, it is not.

    June 24, 2012 at 9:34 pm | Reply
  11. MPA

    The guy who wrote this really out of tune with reality, from living in the west for so long. The government can easily stop things from showing up on youtube by blocking internet access. They can block cell phone calls by blocking access to the antennas China and Iran has done many times. Dictators are just former military strong men and authoritarian regimes, they also include Monarchies, such as Bahrain, Jordan and Kuwait who also have been known to raise the body count when people start to protest en masse.

    Most of these dictators and monarchs were put into power and/or financially supported by the West since the break up of the Ottoman Empire in the ME.

    June 24, 2012 at 10:26 pm | Reply
  12. Antonio Lorusso

    It's not just dictators who have adapted, the history of western democratic governments is an adaptation to yearnings for liberty. They give us just enough liberty and no more to keep us happy and to keep us from overthrowing them to keep themselves in power.

    September 5, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Reply
  13. Pat

    There is every reason to believe that, if elected, Romney would impose a corporate dictatorship upon America, and that may well be the current intent of the Republican Party, given the actions of Bush I and Bush II, many of which policies have been extended by President Obama, knowingly or unknowingly.

    The founders did not intend for America to become or entertain a dictatorship, and the fact that corporations were not invented at the time, is no reason to conclude that this could be done indirectly for that which could not be done directly.

    Holding the American people to an impossible standard – accountable to a corporation, an object – is the equivalent of installing the wizard behind the curtain known as OZ (from the film the Wizard of OZ) to dictate their every action, reaction, and thought. No one needs Corporate morality that the world shall live by or else.

    September 29, 2012 at 9:51 am | Reply
  14. Rosella

    I hardly comment, but i did some searching and wound up here How dictators have evolved
    with the times – Global Public Square – CNN.com Blogs.
    And I actually do have 2 questions for you if you don't mind. Is it only me or does it appear like some of these responses look like written by brain dead visitors? 😛 And, if you are posting at other online social sites, I'd like
    to follow anything new you have to post. Could you list of the complete urls of your community pages
    like your Facebook page, twitter feed, or linkedin

    Picnic Tables

    October 6, 2012 at 1:13 am | Reply
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