Instagram: The dictator’s choice! How social media lets us mingle with villains

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.

Casual tea party: 

Bashar Al_Assad casual tea party

Lots of meet-and-greet photos with Syrian people:

Bashar Al_Assad meet and greet with Syrian people

A rare shot that indicates there’s violence in the country. But Assad is the caretaker in this photo narrative, not the commander of an army.

Bashar Al_Assad caretaker

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. 

Ramzan Kadyrov tree shaped like a heart

And Kadryov’s affinity for small animals is deeply incongruous with his reputation for mercilessly quashing dissent. 

Ramzan Kadyrov affinity for small animals

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. His last tweet:

It 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.

While Assad and Kadyrov’s Instagram accounts attempt to sell a counter-narrative and improve their PR, and Tsarnaev’s account somewhat normalizes him, sometimes social media can actually disrupt the official story and create fodder for opponents. 

Members of the Israeli Defense Forces have received criticism for photos uploaded to their Instagram accounts that depict a disturbingly cavalier attitude toward Palestinians. RT reported on several of these images, including one from a border guard with the caption “don’t fuc* with the Israeli army!!!”

don't fuck with the Israeli army

Other photos in the user’s account are far more mundane. He poses for contemplative selfies, and makes sure to mention he has an iPhone 4. The discrepancy between the vitriol aimed at Palestine in certain captions and the overall impression his photos give of your average 20-something is startling, and echoes why the images uploaded by Assad are so fascinating: They underline the fact that violence and war are perpetuated by ordinary humans, not monsters with blood frothing from their mouths. 

This past February an IDF soldier posted a photograph to his Instagram account showing a Palestinian boy in the crosshairs of a sniper rifle. A spokesperson for the IDF told the Guardian that the photo was “not in accordance with the spirit of the IDF,” but the incident still raised awareness about the contempt soldiers can have for civilians in conflict zones. The uploader has since closed his Instagram account, so you can’t log on to see whether he intersperses his conflict pictures with more ordinary images, like his fellow soldiers. 

For the IDF, the fact that individual soldiers post contemptuously on Instagram certainly doesn’t work as propaganda; if anything, it demonstrates that social media can be a danger to regimes, since anyone can upload nearly anything they want.

Social media’s role as a potent communication and image-sharing tool during times of political unrest, especially in the Middle East, has been well-documented, and the fact that the IDF can clamp down on Palestinian opponents but not how its own soldiers use the Internet emphasizes that facet. 

Even what is often considered the most tightly controlled political state in the world, North Korea, has relinquished a bit of image control by letting outsiders use social media within the country. AP correspondent Jean Lee and photographer David Guttenfelder have been keeping a fascinating social media travelogue, posting images and videos to Instagram that give us a look inside the Hermit Kingdom.

Hermit Kingdom

These journalists are kept corralled by handlers – they’re not exactly taking Vines of prison camps, just areas they’ve been approved to be in. But their increased access and ability to make independent media posts suggests that the North Korean regime either doesn’t understand the power of social media, or they do understand it and believe the benefits they’ll get from allowing this freedom of storytelling is worth the loss of control. 

Imagine if Kim Jong Un ever signed up for an account. You would follow it, wouldn’t you?

What does evil look like? The child’s imagination sees horns, fangs, and sunken, soulless eyes. But political theorist Hannah Arendt struck on an often startling aspect of truly heinous acts with her well known theory of “the banality of evil” – that atrocities are usually perpetrated by people who look perfectly ordinary, who hug their grandparents and take out the trash. She believed that even Nazi war criminals were more clowns than monsters

Now, Arendt’s phrase has remained lodged in popular consciousness for a reason. Not every villain is a bloated, bald, cat-stroking maniac. But the humanity shown by killers and kings on social media is only part of the reason their accounts hold interest. The intriguing element in seeing content that portrays the personal lives of people we consider monsters isn’t how human these people can seem, it’s how carefully constructed their accounts are, and what their very intentionally selected photos and words tell us about them. Assad’s glossy, look-Ma-I’m-a-humanitarian account offers a counter narrative so ham-fisted it basically screams “I have no emotions!” 

Tsarvnaev may have tweeted like an ordinary teenager, but no ordinary teenager would be so insanely sociopathic to tweet “Stay safe” in response to an act of unspeakable violence that they themselves committed. So Tsarvnaev’s Twitter underlines how different and problematic his thinking is from others. And the reason we look at the accounts of Israeli soldiers who have so much disdain for Palestinians isn’t because of their cheerful self portraits or lighthearted comments, it’s because of the unusually cruel pictures they post. 

Monitoring the social-media accounts of people prone to violence, whether they’re trying to improve their public relations with staged shots or just showing a trace of the normal, human behavior that lies beneath their cruel surfaces, is addicting – because we see bits of ourselves in these people we see as “other,” as inhuman. Because even though these users might lead oppressive regimes or even kill people, they’re users … and even they want to use the Toaster filter or take selfies.

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