Feature

Is it weird to follow Bashar al-Assad on Instagram?

The Syrian president puts a happy face on a war that has killed an estimated 100,000 people

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime is currently entrenched in a civil war that the U.N. estimates has killed more than 100,000 people.

He is also on Instagram. His account, launched just last week, shows no evidence of the alleged atrocities committed in his name.

Instead, judging by the photos, it would appear that Assad spends most of his time doing volunteer work with his British-born wife Asma, or clutching the hand of an injured man who, presumably, wasn't a victim of one of his regime's fighter-jet strikes.

That prompts the question: Is it weird to Instagram-follow someone the United Nations has condemned as a war criminal? Of course, no one expected Assad to post pictures of himself giving a thumbs-up next to a pile of chemical weapons. But the idea of actively subscribing to a feed of propaganda is strange to say the least, especially when you consider the estimated 5,000 Syrians who are dying every month due to the violence, or the refugees fleeing at a rate comparable to Rwanda during that country's genocide in 1994.

The Assad regime is hardly a stranger to social media. It linked to this Instagram feed from its Twitter account; interested parties can also friend Assad on Facebook.

In some respects, slapping staged photos on Instagram could be seen as a sign of Assad's social media savvy. For all the talk of Twitter revolutions taking down dictators, it's important to remember that social media is a tool that can be used by both sides.

He is also not the first strongman to post photos on Instagram. Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, who has also been accused of human rights abuses, has a habit of sharing odd, intimate, and often bucolic images of himself.

Then there are the numerous pictures documenting the joyless machismo of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the looking-at-stuff skills of North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, all of which are hungrily devoured by outside observers.

And there's nothing wrong with that. After all, propaganda can reveal more about the regimes themselves — their deepest wishes, their crippling fears, their fundamental weaknesses — than their leaders ever intended to let on. In that light, you couldn't find a more evocative record of Assad's rule than his Instagram feed.

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