WHEN he is not lifting minuscule weights or catering to the whims of his cats, Najib Razak somehow finds time to be Malaysia’s prime minister—or so his feed on Instagram, a photo-sharing app, implies. Hun Sen, Cambodia’s strongman, apparently dedicates most of his time to posing for selfies with adoring young Cambodians, if his Facebook page is to be believed. And then there is Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, who assures his followers on Instagram: “Every moment of my life is devoted to the welfare of India.” That cannot be quite true, as quite a lot of it is devoted to social media, most notably Twitter. He has tweeted more than five times a day, on average, since joining the microblogging service in 2009. He has more than 40m followers, just 7.5m behind Donald Trump, and over 33m more than the combined following of Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, and Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister.
Like Mr Trump, Asian leaders have discovered that social-media platforms are very useful for communicating with voters and seizing the attention of the press. As smartphones proliferate, so does the potential audience. Thailand, with a population of 69m, has 47m Facebook users. Malaysia, with 31m people, has 22m.
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Different platforms suit different purposes. Facebook is the top choice for pushing policies, says Terrence Ngu of StarNgage, a Singaporean company which runs social-media campaigns; Instagram is now the main way “to promote personalities”. Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, shares dreamy panoramic photos from his holidays on Instagram. His government recently got locals with lots of followers, such as emcees and bloggers, to hype #SGBudget in a desperate bid to spark youthful excitement about its fiscal plans.
Joko Widodo, the president of Indonesia, is deft across many platforms, but his true love is YouTube. His selfie-style “vlogging”, tagged #JKWVLOG, delights hundreds of thousands. At a recent summit in Germany, he got both Mr Trudeau and Mr Macron to record a quick hello to the people of Indonesia, an arm draped over his shoulder.
It is hard to beat Mr Modi for innovation, however. He has created an app that bundles all his social-media offerings. It can be downloaded in 12 Indian languages and offers snazzy infographics on government policy as well as titillating articles on the prime minister’s fashion choices (“When simplicity becomes style: the story behind the Modi Kurta”).
Of course, all this sharing can backfire. Hun Sen, who has run Cambodia for more than 30 years, was mocked in 2016 when it became obvious he was buying “likes” for his Facebook page. And not all those who peruse Mr Najib’s Instagram account are converted. “Stupidest PM yet,” declares one commentator. “Fuck you fatty,” says another.