Barely a day passes without another Twitter storm courtesy of Donald Trump. Whether it’s haranguing news media or issuing self-congratulatory missives, the US President is surely aware that his tweets do not just follow the news; they are the news.
And while social media like Facebook, Twitter and WeChat has transformed the ability of citizens to act for social justice, they are increasingly a tool for heads of state to swerve traditional media and control their country’s narrative.
In some cases, such as Russia, China or the Philippines, huge armies of trolls flood networks with confusing or pro-government messages. “Social media has undeniably helped activist movements draw attention to their causes,” reads a recent The New Republic article. “But regimes around the world have figured out how to use social media to build even bigger megaphones, effectively drowning out dissent.”
According to a report by Burson-Marsteller, a communications specialist, in January this year, 87 heads of state, 70 prime ministers and 55 foreign ministers maintain a Facebook page. Considering the company currently has a little over two billion followers, that is probably a sound idea.
Barack Obama was the first leader to open a Facebook page in 2007, and left office with 54m Twitter followers. That has since increased to 97.1m – far outstripping his successor Trump’s 43.2m. Rwanda’s controversial leader Paul Kagame was the first head of state to tweet, in 2010.
When Obama launched his personal Facebook page on November 9 2015, he declared that “This is a place where we can have real conversations about the most important issues facing our country – a place where you can hear directly from me, and share your own thoughts and stories.”
Whether that goal is being achieved, given the number of trolls and propaganda flooding social media, is questionable. But politics and the web go hand in hand. Here are some heads of state that use it better than most.
1. Narendra Modi, Prime Minister, India
Modi, elected in 2014, is the most followed world leader on Facebook with over 42m followers. He also has 37m followers on Twitter. He has become a master of the medium, posting frequent behind-the-scenes images and thoughts that are lapped up by his citizens. Three Facebook pictures of Modi with his mother garnered 1.8m interactions – second only to an Easter greeting posted by the Obamas in 2016.
Modi’s “magic”, as the Wall Street Journal recently called it, is to combine intimate, political scenes with family and charity work. A before-and-after shot of Modi sweeping a parking lot in Delhi got 2.4m likes, and over 141,000 shares. When Modi decided to thaw relations with neighbor Pakistan in 2015, he didn’t take to the television nor issue a press statement: he tweeted. Modi is “India’s first social media prime minister,” wrote Britain’s Financial Times.
2. Donald Trump, President, United States
So great has 45th President Trump’s Twitter presence been, that many suggest it could be a savior for the popular but financially-precarious company. Twitter makes just $7.99 for each of its 313m users – far less than LinkedIn, for example, which gets $32.41 from its own 467m users. Trump has used the platform to slay critics, slam citizens he feels do not show him enough respect, and–of course–to cry “fake news” at every possible opportunity.
Some feel Trump’s use of social media is a subversion of democracy. Others have contested that his blocking people is illegal. Trump doesn’t care, and has continually lauded Twitter and Facebook as ways of speaking directly to his base. Many of them disagree, however: a Fox News poll in June found that 70% of respondents believe Trump’s tweets hurt his agenda.
3. Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China
Xi, whose thoughts were inducted into the Chinese constitution last month, is not as frequent a user of social media as his other world leader peers. But when he takes to the web, China listens. His first post, on the country’s largest platform, Sina Weibo, garnered 48,000 commented.
Since then Xi has limited his output to official messages and the occasional soccer player selfie. This summer he ordered Sina Weibo to block criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Around the same time images of Winnie the Pooh were banned for the bear’s supposed likeness to Xi. A Tencent game, in which users could applaud the Chinese premier, had been played more than 400m times by this October.
Under Xi a fleet of pro-Beijing messages have drowned opposition via the Communist Party’s Internet Water Army, and the so-called 50 Cent Army, named after the 0.5 yuan ($0.07) cost of each post, has engineered a personality cult unrivaled since the rule of Mao Zedong. China’s state Xinhua news agency recently described Xi as an “unrivaled helmsman”, and praised his role in bringing millions of Chinese out of poverty.
4. Vladimir Putin, President, Russia
Like his Chinese counterpart, Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s social media posts largely consist of official images at conferences and summits. But Putin’s own reputation, as a tough, traditional and benevolent leader, has been carefully crafted – and social media is one of his key tools.
Another striking similarity to Xi is the way Putin has controlled social media platforms behind the scenes. Kremlin-run troll farms are at the heart of a wave of disinformation spreading through western democracies. Much of it is the work of Putin advisor Vladislav Surkov, whose background in theater has, experts say, helped him create a climate of confusion that gives Putin’s message added clarity.
The President’s influence doesn’t end there. Pavel Durov, the creator of “Russian Facebook” VKontakte, stepped away from the company in 2014 amid mounting pressure from Moscow. Alisher Usmanov, Russia’s richest man and a close ally of Putin, bought the firm and sacked two staff for posting anti-Putin material. Social media may have been a way for Putin’s critics to fight him. Today it is hard to see any way its users can challenge his omnipotence.
5. Queen Rania of Jordan
Kuwait-born Palestinian Queen Rania, who assumed her position in 1999, quickly rose to prominence for her use of the Internet to promote philanthropic and royal engagements, and to build her brand as one of the world’s best-known consorts. Labeled “Jordan’s virtual queen” by Britain’s The Telegraph, Queen Rania is present across all major platforms including her own YouTube channel and Instagram account, on which she doesn’t mind sharing personal moments such as eating a burger or hanging out with her husband, King Abdullah bin al-Hussein.
With 8.9m Twitter followers Queen Rania has a fandom almost as large as her country’s entire population. “These are powerful networks and I think increasingly we are going to be able to use these communities to share resources to bring about important changes,” she said back in 2009.
Queen Rania has gone online to campaign for women’s rights and about political situations facing the Middle East. “Stories and our desire to share them are universal,” she told Mashable in 2015. “Technology simply offers new creative ways to tell them, and have them reach more people.”
6. Hun Sen, Prime Minister, Cambodia
In a southeast Asian region that features more than its share of truculent autocrats, Hun Sen, who with a term of 32 years is the world’s longest serving prime minister, might just be its most tech-savvy. His Facebook following numbers some 9m people: in a country of under 16m that is no mean feat.
What makes the former Khmer Rouge member’s profile so popular is its abundance of selfies and personal insights, including trips to the beach and jocular posts alongside friends and family members. He also has no qualms spiting political rivals, and Facebook has become “the key battleground in Cambodian politics,” according to the Phnom Penh Post.
Longtime adversary Sam Rainsy accused Hun Sen of buying Facebook likes this May, and he may have had a point: of Hun Sen’s 7.6m followers then, only 3.5m were located in Cambodia (Rainsy, by comparison, had a domestic following of 3m among his 3.9m followers). The prime minister, 65, who says he will rule into his seventies, had a pithy reply: “Sam Rainsy does not even know the difference between a post ‘like’ and a total page ‘like’.” What a smackdown.