Dictator selfies

Entering the weird Instagram world of 21st century propaganda

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Human rights groups claim that he has personally overseen torture sessions of dissidents in private dungeons @ramzankadyrov

Would Mussolini take selfies? It’s a question that comes to mind when looking at Bashar al-Assad’s Instagram feed. First set up in July, the Syrian dictator and his wife, Asma al-Assad, have been using Instagram to present an alternate reality to the bloody and ongoing civil war in their country.

Hugging top scoring students, shaking hands with the troops and working at soup kitchens: just a day in the Instagrammed life of the Syrian presidency as thousands die and millions flee for the borders. There’s even #vintage shots of Assad as a hardworking GCSE student in 1982, and a #retro #90s picture of Assad as an army captain.

Assad isn’t the only brutal political ruler to hashtag himself: Chechnya tyrant Ramzan Kadyrov is a big fan of cute animal pics (above), while Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini favours the moody self-portrait. 

We once thought of social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook as helping to bring down dictators

These days, the face of political propaganda comes with a Valencia filter. Instead of exuberant Soviet depictions of the Motherland or Hitler's cult of personality campaigns, we get #nofilter shots of dictators going about their everyday lives. 21st century dictatorship is cuddly, approachable and loves pets – or at least, these rulers are invested in making it seem that way. 

"It's actually a very useful thing," Kadyrov once said of Instagram during a press conference. "I now have the opportunity to monitor public opinion in real time."

He was at pains to describe it as just another duty for a busy politician. "If, for people, Instagram is just entertainment, for me it's an additional burden," he said. (Note: this didn’t stop Kadyrov from Instagramming a picture of himself with a chicken with the caption: “I just fed a chicken!")

Part PR campaign, part proof of the banality of evil – we once thought of social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook as helping to bring down dictators. Does that argument still stand when they’re using Instagram to their advantage?

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