On the morning of Aug. 21, strange, awful images began spreading from the eastern suburbs of Damascus to the international media: footage of screaming children, of dead animals and human victims stretched out on the ground, their eyes glazed and pupils dilated, some convulsing, some motionless. The Obama administration would later say it was evidence of the worst chemical-weapons attack in 25 years, carried out by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, a violation of international norms of warfare and a provocation that demanded a military response. But the images posted on Assad's Instagram feed from the same period convey nothing of a regime in crisis. They show the angular Syrian despot, who turns 48 on Sept. 11, striding through a room of academics who helped train Syrian high school science students for an international science competition.
Assad is the latest in what one news site has called " the dictators of Instagram." Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov has famously used the social-networking site as a platform to project his very Russian style of masculinity (photo montages of the impossibly barrel-chested despot weight-lifting and posing with wolves and wildcats.) The minions of Ayatollah Khamenei have posted several close-ups of Iran's septuagenarian Supreme Leader on his photo-sharing page.
But there is something especially surreal about the gilded snapshots of Assad and his wife, given the rapaciousness with which he has turned on his own people and the international angst currently being expended over how to respond to his actions. On Wednesday, as Secretary of State John Kerry testified before Congress to seek authorization for the use of force against Assad, the government in Damascus was uploading a series of images of Syria's glamorous, British-born first lady, Asma, posing with high school students.
The Instagram feed is part of what The New York Times described Tuesday as a strategy "to act as if nothing untoward is happening, as if the gory civil war that has laid waste to Syria is taking place in a different realm." Assad appears to have no real presence on Twitter, and a recent post on the Instagram feed complains of having a video of one of his speeches blocked by YouTube. But the three-year-old photo-sharing site may offer special appeal to the mendacious political figurehead: maximum control over what users can present on a homepage, a small button for viewers to like photos and a relatively unused photo-tagging feature. Its comment sections have typically afforded refuge from Godwin's Law, which dominates many conversations on the web. (Instagram did not respond to a request for comment about its policy towards murderous, dictatorial users.)
But the photos on Assad's Instagram have been too controversial for users to ignore. Beneath pictures of Asma serving food to "internally displaced families" (while wearing a wrist gadget designed for the health-obsessed to track their eating and sleeping habits) or Bashar glad-handing the country's troops, debates between the regime's opponents and supporters who believe the country is under attack from terrorists are raging. "I hope you and your husband die in the worst way possible," one user wrote, in one of the only printable comments from the critics of Assad. There are other signs that the regime's efforts to manipulate social media for the purposes of propaganda aren't going perfectly. Just a few days after the Syrian government began posting photos a month ago, another account called Real Syrian Presidency began posting photos more like the ones outsiders have come to associate with the country, of dead children.