Instagram: The dictator’s choice! How social media lets us mingle with villains
By Kate Knibbs
Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad is a figure mired in controversy. A viciously violent civil war, started by his own forces instigating conflict with protesters, is destroying the country he continues to rule. More than a hundred thousand citizens have been killed in the conflict. To many, many people, Assad is a stone-cold dictator clinging to power despite mounting casualties and international pressure to broker peace.
Assad and his regime know that he is widely considered a despot by Islamists, pro-democracy activists, and international human rights groups, including the United Nations. And they know that the war’s impact on Syria’s communications infrastructure is making it difficult for people to piece together a coherent perspective on the violence. Assad’s team is rushing to fill the information void with positive images – and now they’ve folded Instagram into their propaganda campaign.
Looking at Assad’s Instagram account, you’d think he was third cousins with Mother Theresa instead of the son of a dictator, leading one side of an intensely bloody conflict. It’s a weird collection of eerily positive pictures that make it hard to tell the country and its leader are even at war.
Assad may be one of the most visible political oppressors with Instagram, but he’s not the only one. Chechnyan president Ramzan Kadyrov is also an Instagrammer; he has uploaded hundreds of family photos and candid shots to the social network. It’s not confirmed that the pro-Kremlin ruler ran his first account himself, though that’s what many believe due to the quantity and quality of the shots. He now has an active second account with lots of photos, including some filtered nature shots and pictures of himself with friends and celebrities.
Judging from his well-lit photograph of a tree shaped like a heart, you’d hardly know Kadyrov is accused of many serious human rights abuses, including ordering a successful hit on a human-rights lawyer.
Kadyrov doesn’t just use Instagram for fun shots. He took to the site to distance Chechnya from the Boston bombings; according to Buzzfeed’s translation, he said “Any attempt to draw a connection between Chechnya and Tsarnaevs — if they are guilty — is futile. They were raised in the United States, and their attitudes and beliefs were formed there. It is necessary to seek the roots of this evil in America.”
Like Assad, Kadyrov is using Instagram to present an alternative narrative; he is employing imagery to attempt to counter his reputation from a political thug to the sort of guy who fondles baby chickens and gets excited to take photographs with Elizabeth Hurley. One of the reasons people like to follow celebrities on Instagram, Twitter, and other social networks is to get a glimpse of their day-to-day lives, and these political oppressors are leaning on that to humanize themselves.
A recent article asked if it was weird to follow Assad on Instagram, considering his horrifying track record. As long as following political dictators doesn’t result in an increase in their legitimacy, it seems like a reasonable thing to do; you get to see propaganda made in real time, and there’s certainly something to be said for staying informed via whatever digital means we have at our disposal.
But there is certainly a distinct impulse to follow people we consider monstrous on social media, and it indicates we’re struggling to attach some humanity to their actions; this is why Dzhokhar Tsarvnaev’s Twitter follower count shot up astronomically after his identity as one of the Boston bombers was revealed. His account is a stunning digital artifact that testifies to the banality of evil; his Twitter is filled with typical teenage musings on weed, Finding Nemo, and dreams about cheeseburgers.
One of his tweets, which says “I’m a stress free kind of guy,” was re-tweeted over 7,000 times and the account still has over 84,000 followers. It shows people want to peer at their monsters without a veil, if possible – and social media has made it easier than ever. Read more in Digital Trends.
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