“We would encourage people to take a look at unfiltered photos of what’s actually happening on the ground,” Harf said.
A great many images have captured the horror of the civil war. A photo essay released this week by AFP / Getty Images shows Homs from above and gives the starkest account yet of the destruction felt in that city. This aerial view from Reuters shows the extent of the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan which now holds over 115,000 displaced people. 
In contrast, the Instagram account is mostly photos of the first family with children, clerics and caring for the injured. They appear to be entirely old press photos – one of the president in a crowd of supporters was uploaded to AFP’s image library on March 30, 2011, only two weeks after the beginning of the war. Others have been widely cross-posted between his Facebook and Twitter accounts. Additionally, no effort has been made to utilise Instagram’s filter feature, every photo is a high quality shot from a professional. In short, they’re the kind of clean and bland photos published by every happy & popular first family in the world.
The content of the account is far from surprising and not particularly indictable. Nobody could reasonably expect that the Syrian president would pop a filter on a selfie in Aleppo. Doing so would be viewed by critics as trivialising the destruction of that city and would reinforce the horror of the war for his domestic audience. Photos of him commanding the troops would be disingenuous and contribute to an image of him as a warmonger.
The deliberate disengagement with the wider political circumstances of present-day Syria is as predictable as its staged banality. But while the former isn’t worth much discussion, the latter is.
Instagram is an increasingly popular platform for world leaders to engage a young audience. It is a highly-personal place for archiving the minutiae of life; every breakfast, sunrise and outfit is carefully documented and uploaded for the world’s consumption. The culture of Instagram is about warmth, emotion and nostalgia; filters make the most everyday event resemble a Californian summer in the 1970s. The sense of being part of somebody’s day, their best and worst and most boring moments, creates a connection to that person.
Savvy communications professionals tap into this to extend their subject’s profile online and build depth of character. The site can offer the public a rare view of a political leader’s life outside of parliament; their family, pets, interests.
One of the best examples of Instagram as a PR tool is here at home. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd uses the site frequently. He created a mini whirlwind of discussion last month when he posted a selfie after cutting himself shaving. Rudd recognises the desire of the electorate to connect with their leaders and is unafraid to share this small personal failing, trading on the old idea of being just like us, the everyman we’d like to share a beer with. It works doubly well in a country like Australia with its ongoing disdain for ivory tower academic types or anybody seen to be standing above the others. Politically and communicatively clever, Rudd and his team circumvent traditional news media to reach a large audience of young swing voters.
‘He speaks English and his wife is hot.’
The Assad family have long been interested in their public image. Their background is very friendly to a Western audience – London educated, the two met while they were studying. He trained as an ophthalmologist before being brought back to Syria following the death of his brother in 1994.
In 2006 the first lady received advice from London’s Bell Pottinger firm on setting up a communications office in Damascus. Her efforts paid off when Paris Match called her an ‘element of light in a country full of shadow zones’ and the ‘eastern Diana’.
In 2009, The Huffington Post posted a slideshow titled ‘Asma Al-Assad: Syria’s First Lady and an All Natural Beauty’ and she was featured by Vogue in a controversial 2012 interview which has since been deleted by the site. The family reportedly paid $5,000 / month to PR firm Brown Lloyd James to act as a liaison between the first lady and the magazine during this period.
Seen as an extension of that campaign this is an uncharacteristically poorly-considered move by the family.
By offering little more than a press pack of recycled campaign photos and staged hospital moments this Instagram account contributes nothing new to our image of the president. Its detachment from the family’s personal lives seemingly reflects a fundamental failure to understand the culture of Instagram. The site could be an important extension of the ongoing effort to reclaim their public image.
Rather than being a failure of PR strategy, it seems more likely that Assad’s audience has changed. Efforts to court the West’s favour would come to nothing and so the messages conveyed in these cookie-cutter images – strength, unity & popularity – are for his domestic audience, to galvanise his base and their support for the war. The days of the personable, educated and familiar Western-friendly dictator are gone and with it the Vogue-led marketing campaign.
A world where the Syrian president used the Sutro filter, horrible as it is, is certainly preferable to one where he uses sarin gas. In different circumstances it seems likely that Assad’s family would’ve embraced Instagram’s potential to reach a large audience quickly and the culture of warmth surrounding it. Now though it is used as simply another weapon in his propaganda arsenal, part of his desperate attempt to grasp at whatever support he can get.