Double Identity: Assad on Instagram versus IRL

A young child hugs a concerned looking man in a suit, giving the sense that the man is a leader to those that still have innocence. Women graduating from college have a gleam in their eyes as they consider their futures, smiling at the opportunity to meet the first lady of their country at their convocation ceremony – their position in society seems infallible. A man on a stretcher clearly in pain holds onto the man in a suit, looking to him for support and relief. Instinct would render these images as heartwarming, but they have incited nothing short of disgust from around the world. As of July 24th, Bashar al-Assad, the despot who is responsible for killing his own people in Syria, now has Instagram.

It’s really not that odd for him to launch this social media account. Is it shameless? Yes. Is it unexpected? Not necessarily. This was clearly a calculated decision. The photos are not extreme images that one naturally associates with the name “Bashar al-Assad.” Instead, the pictures are a long stream of propaganda, attempting to convince the viewer that Syria’s President is a normal man. Forget about the fact that he is responsible for a civil war that has tallied over 100,000 deaths, he visits people in the hospital, his wife cares for children. These pictures function for the sole purpose of making him appear like a responsible leader. For a state leader today not to be plugged into some social media outlet is unusual – and for a leader in the past not to try to optimize on the media tools of their generation is also not a revolutionary thought. In fact, reflecting solely on dictators, a Daily Beast article hits the nail on the head:

“The more successful the tyrants, the better their ability to exploit new technology. Napoleon Bonaparte mastered printing. He owned two newspapers… Adolf Hitler understood the value of getting flattering portraits out amongst the German masses.”

Despite the fact that it is not surprising al-Assad is trying to control his image, the launch of this account is still disturbing and disrespectful. In fact, the launch aggravated plenty of people that oppose his tactics, including the United States. State Department spokeswoman Marie Hard stated “It’s repulsive that the Al Assad regime would use this to gloss over the brutality and suffering it is causing.”

Additionally, the regime is monitoring the profile incessantly to ensure no negative comments linger too long, perpetuating this clean image that is, quite frankly, fooling no one in the outside world. The images are completely disconnected from what is happening on the ground in Syria, intensifying opposition attitudes against Assad. Nobody likes to see blatant manipulative tactics, which is what his Instagram account is. This is round three for the Assad regime, however: it already has a Twitter and Facebook account. This sends the message that its social media rhetoric is worth the investment – and their intended audience is not the global community that rejects his brazen tactics.

The images of Assad are of him taking care of his people – the very people that he is killing. In fact, as the CBC bluntly noted, he killed “75 Western-backed rebels” merely 2 days before launching this account. Talk about a disconnect with reality. His account is a stark contrast with the war, yet by being vigilant with negative comments, Assad’s Instagram is filled with messages of adoration. The Assad regime still has domestic support, and this is what this account is demonstrating. Regardless of how small it is, and how much violence it has to exercise to maintain (or coerce) that support, the regime will do it.

The message the regime is sending is clear: Al Assad is not planning on leaving anytime soon. If you want to see what their next message will be, the most appropriate hash-tag that could be attributed to it would be #shamelesspropaganda. Al Assad’s social media feeds are filled with it, as he continues to wage war against the very people he is taking pictures with.

Radha Patel

About Radha Patel

Radha Patel completed her BA at McGill University, with a double major in Political Science and World Religions and a minor in Politics, Law, and Society. Her areas of interest include international relations, comparative politics, and transitions to democracy. Radha is interested in learning about Canada’s role on the international stage and how it can be optimized to be more effective in its global endeavours. She was the Program Editor as well as a Research Analyst for the Emerging Securities Program at the NATO Association of Canada.