This weekend I discovered Facebook’s “Which Dictator Are You?” application. This is a seven-question quiz that spits out a result with some basic historical information on a dictator and some cheeky comments about how the application inferred a match from your answers.

I have some unanswered questions about how the quiz works and some preliminary thoughts on how history is being communicated through such a device.

1) First item of note is the questions themselves. They arguably tell you very little directly about a person’s leadership style. They include things like musical taste, whether you buy girl scout cookies, and how you behave when stuck in a line at the bank. This contrasts to more straightforward “Which Dictator Are You” quizzes like the one at PoisonedMinds.com, which ask questions like “What’s your preference on facial hair?” “Who are the handy scapegoats for why your country sucks?” “What is your weapon of choice?” and “What kind of building do you live in?” – things that can be easily correlated to the actual behavior of historical figures.

2) Secondly, the questions measure how people see themselves – and actually, on how they wish to present how they see themselves publicly, since your Facebook friends can view the results of your quiz. So it’s not based on anything objective. If you’re going to correlate this to the personality traits of specific dictators, the matches should be generated on the basis of how dictator see themselves (thru memoirs perhaps?), not “objective” history. How is the matching actually done I wonder? (It could be completely arbitrary – two friends of mine with completely different personality types IMHO have gotten identical results.)

3) Regarding what lessons of history are being taught to the general public through four-sentence snapshots of historical figures: there is a curious gender disparity in the results I’ve been able to see so far. First, there are relatively few female dictators in the sample, at least, as far as I can tell – seems I am limited to looking at my friends’ quiz results, so I’ve only seen a handful out of the possible outcomes. (According to other Facebook user reviews of the application, many other dictators are also missing from the population.) But more interestingly (because of course fewer women have been in power historically) is the variation in commentary for male / female dictators. Compare the descriptions of Hitler and Castro, which emphasize their deeds and leadership styles, to Theodora, an 11th-century Byzantine ruler.

“You and Adolf may party hearty and crash hard, but you do know how to comfort and rally those who are panicked. If you’re not careful, though, your empire will peak as quickly as Hitler’s, and you could end up with the whole world on your tail. I think you’re nicer than him, though.”

“You and Fidel Castro have strong nationalistic pride, and can get by without many resources, resorting to ingenious guerilla tactics. Some even call Castro a benevolent dictator (and hopefully you’ll end up this way!) but sadly he resorts to the same oppression he fought against.”

“You and Theodora aren’t bad off, and you both vigorously assert your rights and work hard for what you want. You also shatter traditional ideas about gender roles on a daily basis.”

So let me get this straight: Theodora shatters gender stereotypes and asserts her own rights (standard feminism), and that makes her a dictator (defined by Facebook as having “sole power over his state and [being] usually oppressive or abusive”)? Hmm.

4) Hat tip to Facebook, though, for including Western dictators in their population. Turns out I’m “Abraham Lincoln.”

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