A Dictator’s Guide to Instagram: Using Social Media to Win Hearts and Minds


He comforts hospital patients, consoles a wounded man’s daughter, and congratulates a blind student on achieving a secondary school certificate. A compassionate missionary or foreign aid worker? No. He is Bashar al-Assad, President of the Syrian Arab Republic, dictator extraordinaire, and as of 24 July, a registered Instagram account holder.

Assad’s Instagram account is billed as “the official Instagram account for the Presidency of the Syrian Arab Republic.” Users are greeted by photos of a smiling Assad and his wife, shaking hands with ordinary Syrians, handing out food, and wiping the tears from the faces of distraught children. Assad is not the first dictator to join Instagram. He follows in the footsteps of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov – from whom he could learn a thing or two.

Of course, Instagram is only the newest propaganda medium – leaders have been taking advantage of propaganda mediums for centuries, from Napoleon owning two newspapers to Hitler founding a “people’s radio.” But the modern dictator needs to ramp up his game if he wishes to appeal to anyone other than die-hard supporters. For dictatorial social media success, here are four easy steps to follow:

1. Be both feared and loved. As Machiavelli long ago explained, to maintain the subservience of his subjects a leader should be both feared and loved. But if one must choose between the two, he should opt for fear. In this respect, Assad is struggling. He needs to take a page out of Kadyrov’s book and throw up some scarier looking pics. Kadyrov hangs out with wolves – Assad so far has just been kissing babies in comparison. If you're not man enough to actually hang out with a wild wolf, simply sedate one and pretend. Russian President Vladimir Putin can offer some tips in this regard. Whether it's shooting a tiger with a tranquilizer gun or hang gliding with migrating storks, he's your man. But a word of warning: If you only pretend to do such things, the trick is not to get caught – no dictator should look ridiculous in the eyes of his people.

2. Nationalism, nationalism, nationalism. Nothing unifies a people better than appealing to their common soul. The dictator must loudly proclaim his patriotism, that all he is doing, the sacrifices he is making, is for the nation, for the people. Victories by the nation’s soccer team always help, with the proud president slapping the backs of the players, but difficult to pull off when the country is torn asunder by war. Perhaps the best Instagram to be hoped for here is the dictator saluting the national flag, or better yet, waving the flag aloft and singing the national anthem. The problem for Assad is that the nation is well and truly divided. The rebels are fighting for the people too.

3. Propaganda isn’t a one-sided game. It isn’t all about you. The dictator also needs to do damage to his opponents. Assad is struggling with this one too. Instagrams of him and his wife being chummy with the people don’t fool anyone – the country is at war. The other side may be evil, but it has also racked up some impressive gains. For the propaganda to be completely successful, the opposition must be vilified. To counter any misunderstanding about who the good guys are, Assad needs to post some pictures of the destruction perpetrated by the rebels, e.g., devastated schools and hospitals and such. Hashtags are key here. A well-timed #FSAwasHere would go a long way to shifting the public’s view of the Free Syrian Army if it were consistently attached to photos of dead Syrians in the streets. And don’t be afraid to fake these if necessary. If you need to blow up an abandoned school and spray ketchup everywhere, go for it. Gotta do what you gotta do.

4. Link your Instagram with your Facebook and Twitter accounts. That's a huge audience currently missing their daily propaganda. If you're going to use social media, don't half ass it.