Should “they” be allowed to use social media? Who are “they”?

So Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad is using Instagram to paint a more rosy picture of his presidency than the civil war-torn images we see every day in the news. Images of Al-Assad at official meetings, visiting school kids and at a wounded person’s hospital bedside are clearly intended to humanize the president, as are the numerous images of Al-Assad’s wife in a photo op at a community group.

Image from SyrianPresidency Instagram account

Image from SyrianPresidency Instagram account

Kate Knibbs at Digital Trends takes a cynical view, noting, “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.”

Shel Holtz and Neville Hobson, on the For Immediate Release podcast, are a little more practical, noting that while people like Al-Assad and Chechnyan president Ramzan Kadyrov (also mentioned in the Digital Trends post) may be widely regarded negatively, they employ people who are just as digitally-savvy as many of us.

While I sat with a look of distaste on my face at the clear propaganda as I browsed the account (which has about 32,000 followers at time of writing), it occurred to me:

How is this any more wrong than any government using social media?

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that there are two sides to any story.

Crawling through the Cu Chi Tunnels

Crawling through the Cu Chi Tunnels. People used to live in here. Terrifying.

I just returned from vacation in Vietnam, where the “American War” is still fresh in many memories. While there, we visited the War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh City, the Viet Cong tunnels at Cu Chi, the War Museum in Hue and the Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi. The picture of the war I got through these sites was starkly different to that we see in North America.

Which of these sides of the story is right? While I was conscious that much of what I saw was very one-sided, it also made me wonder how one-sided the picture that we have of other events is.

In this case, how is Al-Assad using social media wrong while Barack Obama, Stephen Harper and David Cameron can use it?

I’m certainly not comparing these people to Al-Assad – and in no way am I making any argument about his offline actions. The reaction to his Instagram account certainly got me thinking, though – who gets to determine who the “bad guys” are, and what they can or can’t do online?

How should we feel about it when the “bad guys” do what our own leaders do every day?

Dave Fleet
Managing Director and Head of Global Digital Crisis at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.