If Stalin were alive today he’d have lots of Facebook friends, and Hitler would be all over Twitter. That’s the conclusion I draw from a new study by Burson-Marsteller, which found that the vast majority of governments and leaders around the world (87%) have a social media presence – including a good number of tyrants, failures, and nonentities who appear in the top tier in terms of followers and likes, which almost certainly reflects the ability of their publicists and political stage managers rather than their actual achievements.
Okay, some of the top-ranked leaders are legit: U.S. President Barack Obama, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoan, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, and Myanmar’s Prime Minister Aung San Suu Kyi are all genuinely popular, democratically elected, and social media savvy (though certainly with their fair share of critics).
Other high-ranking figures may give one pause, however. In Asia there’s Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge officer who has held Cambodia in an iron grip for 30 years, and memorably vowed in 2011: “I not only weaken the opposition, I’m going to make them dead... and if anyone is strong enough to try to hold a demonstration, I will beat all those dogs and put them in a cage.” Or how about Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is under investigation in the U.S., U.K. and Hong Kong for the alleged theft of $700 million, and is trying to revive a colonial-era sedition law to stifle his domestic critics?
Over in South America the list of most liked leaders on Facebook includes Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff, who in other forums, like “reality,” is actually the most unpopular president in the country’s history hands down, with an approval rating of 8.8%, while 60% of Brazilians wanted her impeached (they’re trying) and 56% want to see her resign.
Of course, just as it’s possible for a democratically elected leader like Rouseff to be wildly unpopular, it’s also possible for a dictator to be popular, at least as far as can be discerned amid government repression. Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al Sisi has the most followers on Facebook among Middle Eastern leaders, and also still seems to have the support of around half the population, although domestic opinion polls aren’t reliable – and many observers say his popularity is eroding in the face of Egypt’s economic woes and terrorist threats.
In summary, what does social media popularity mean nowadays? Not much.