Monday, 4 October 2021

Political Propaganda in Mexico

When we commissioned the chapters for the Edward Elgar Handbook on Political Propaganda, Yiben, Noon and I hoped to include contributors who would adopt a unique perspective on their subject or analyse propaganda through case-studies that receive little attention in the existing literature. We are delighted that the Handbook contains two chapters on Mexico, a country with a fascinating political system and culture. 

The first is written by my former PhD student, Ruben Arnoldo Gonzalez. Ruben is a journalist and scholar, currently working as a researcher at the Institute of Government Sciences and Strategic Development in Mexico where he chairs the Centre for Political Communication Studies.  

The second is co-written with my colleague, Penny Franco Estrada, the Director of the Language Centre at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, and also a former journalist. Through writing this chapter I learned a lot about presidential politics and elections in Mexico and about Internet memes - their contribution to the production and dissemination of propaganda. 

Both chapters are concerned with political propaganda in Mexico's 2018 presidential elections which saw the electorate choosing a left wing candidate (known as AMLO). Therefore this was a landmark election: not only did it break a monopoly on political power by right and centre right governments, but also demonstrated the continued power of the media and the growing power of the internet and social media to influence the outcome. However, it is important to note that the political culture was also a significant reason for AMLO's success, especially high levels of corruption and crime and popular dissatisfaction with the way previous governments had failed to manage these problems. The election therefore demonstrates that propaganda does not function in a vacuum, but must be socially aware to work.    

I reproduce the abstracts here.  We are now finalising the proofs of the manuscript and the book is on schedule for publication in December 2021.    

The Mexican 2018 presidential election in the media landscape: Newspaper coverage, TV spots, and Twitter Interaction 
Ruben Arnoldo Gonzalez

The 2018 elections can be considered a watershed in Mexican contemporary politics. They were the largest in the history of the country (more than 3400 candidates ran for federal, state, and municipal posts), a left-oriented candidate was elected president for the first time, more than one hundred politicians were killed or injured during the process, and polarisation was the hallmark of the messages from both the candidates and their supporters. This chapter offers a comprehensive overview of the presidential election from three different angles: newspaper coverage, television spots, and candidates' Twitter activity. The empirical evidence indicates that, rather than specific political proposals, propaganda shaped much of the content in the Mexican media landscape during the campaigns.    

Political propaganda and memes in Mexico: The 2018 presidential election 
Penelope Franco Estrada and Gary Rawnsley 

On 1 July 2018, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) won the presidential election in Mexico. This is the first time in Mexican history that a candidate representing the political left has won an election with an overwhelming 53.19 per cent of the vote representing more than 30 million voters. The turnout was an historic high - 63 per cent, bringing to an end a century of rule by by a centre-right party (PRI) and most recently by a rightwing party (PAN). In the 2018 election, social media became an arena for electoral competition, with campaigns either supporting AMLO or discrediting him as a candidate. All social media platforms were streamed with memes, videos, and political propaganda calling him either a hero or a populist. Many used the example of left governments in South America, with comparisons between Venezuela and Mexico. These memes warned social media users about the risks of voting for the left and for the 'Messiah' figure, while AMLO's campaign focused on highlighting the poor results of past administrations. In this chapter we explore how memes were used as weapons against AMLO in 2018, whether they were effective political instruments, or if memes directed against him actually increased the levels of polarisation.      

Friday, 27 August 2021

"Believe Me": Political Propaganda in the Age of Trump

It goes without saying that our Edward Elgar Research Handbook of Political Propaganda had to include a chapter on President Donald Trump, and I accepted the challenge of writing it. It took a while to find the correct angle of approach. After all, so many books and articles - academic and otherwise - had already analysed Trump's use of propaganda, what could I add? Finally I settled on the fascinating way Trump's propaganda seemed to follow down to the very last detail the Institute of Propaganda Analysis so-called 'seven devices', first published in the 1930s. Indeed, it seemed that Trump was often following a road map, ticking off each technique as he went along. This gave me the framework to sort through his words, mainly on Twitter, and provided the structure of the chapter. 

Two further observations were important. First, that Trump's propaganda did not create the political and social environment which gave him his election victory. As all students of propaganda understand - and in his histories of Nazi propaganda David Welch has done far more than most to emphasise this point - propaganda does not and cannot operate in a vacuum. It is fed by, and in turn feeds, the context in which it operates. Trump identified and exploited a particular turn in American politics, especially one that called for 'America first', and encouraged such slogans as 'drain the swamp' and 'build the wall'. Trump did not create this climate, but he certainly profited from it and gave it a voice and visibility.

The second realisation was his relationship with the media. It was depressing to read the many excellent accounts by journalists who covered the Trump campaign and the White House. Journalists are not the enemy of the people, and to label them as such in a democratic system gives succour to those regimes across the world that routinely imprison, torture, and execute journalists for doing their job. However, the news value of first candidate then President Trump meant that news organisations had to question their complicity in building the Trump phenomenon.       

The subject was a moving target. Every day of his presidency provided yet more clear examples of propaganda (there was absolutely no subtlety involved) and it was unfortunate that I had to complete the chapter before the full effects of Covid were felt, and before the final dramatic days of his administration - from the election of November 2020 through the storming of Congress and Joe Biden's inauguration in January 2021. Twitter has deleted Trump's posts, but they can still be found via several on-line archives. The one I found most useful is 

"Believe Me": Political Propaganda in the Age of Trump

President Trump called on his listeners to believe him, his use of this epistrophe revealing a need to emphasise his credentials and experience. Trump was president in a post-truth environment, characterised by claims of 'alternative facts' and 'fake news', circulating faster than ever before through social media networks and distributed by 'mainstream media' that exist in a symbiotic relationship with both the political culture and the information found on social media platforms. Using the framework offered by the Seven Propaganda Devices, first categorised by the Institute of Propaganda Analysis in 1937, this chapter analyses the 'weaponisation' of information by President Trump and his administration and their war on the media, concluding that news journalism in America is as responsible for the rise of Trump as the voters who elected him.  

Saturday, 21 August 2021

World Propaganda and Personal Insecurity by Naren Chitty

I am delighted that my friend, Professor Naren Chitty, agreed to contribute the opening chapter to the forthcoming Edward Elgar Research Handbook on Political Propaganda (scheduled for publication in December). 

Naren is Professor International Communication at Macquarie University where he founded the Soft Power Analysis and Resource Centre. We have worked together on the Journal of International Communication with Naren as the Editor-in-Chief, and as co-editors on the Routledge Handbook of Soft Power. We are now preparing the second edition with Dr Lilian Ji. Naren was awarded the Order of Australia for his services to education. 

I have always admired Naren for the breadth of his understanding of global communications, and he approaches the subject from multiple - sometimes unexpected - angles. It is only fitting that Naren should be the first chapter in our Research Handbook as he provides a valuable overview that conceptualises many of the discussions taken up by other contributors. Here is the abstract.

World Propaganda and Personal Insecurity: Intent, Content, and Contentment

In this chapter propaganda is viewed as all-encompassing and meta-ideological. A big tent concept, it includes both political and sociological forms. The latter may have political uses or outcomes. Propaganda can be crafted at all levels of human interaction. The focus here is largely on the international level, and a constructivist view is taken. It is argued that propaganda operates at two levels - cooperation among states, and competition between states. Cooperation between states leads to, or is led by, the construction of normative superstructures - diffused international regimes. These regimes are associated with particular periods of history. Under a big tent definition they constitute propaganda. Contests of influence by states lead to each constructing its own normative superstructure, or propaganda bubble. Normative superstructures or propaganda bubbles are identified for three periods of history. The first was the 'Cold War and modernisation' period that promoted a new diffused regime of North-South development cooperation. The second was the 'globalisation and terrorism' period that promoted globalisation and prosecuted the war on terrorism. The third is our present 'fractured globalisation' period - fractured by populist reactions to the Western working classes' under-performance and Chinese over-performance - accentuated by the COVID-19 pandemic. New propaganda is emerging around international competition and cooperation. Propaganda bubbles within the US have grown salient, with consequences for foreign policy. Also discussed are intent, content, and contentment. Some sociological propaganda is not intended influence. However, political influencers draw on such pre-existing resources. Political propaganda invariably seeks to influence, and both authoritarian and liberal societies seek to influence. Content may be crafted with virtue and virtuosity to generate contentment among receivers. Rhetoric should go beyond virtuosity of composition to include civil commitment.             

Tuesday, 3 August 2021

The Edward Elgar Handbook on Political Propaganda

I am pleased to announce the Edward Elgar Handbook on Political Propaganda that I have edited with Yiben Ma and Kruakae Pothong is scheduled for publication in December 2021.

The editors have assembled a team of internationally-renowned scholars, each of whom has contributed what we think is a new and exciting perspective on propaganda. We decided not to adopt an historical approach: for example, there are no chapters in the book about the wars of the Twentieth Century. It would be difficult to equal either the breadth of cases or the depth of scholarship found in Propaganda and Conflict: War Media and Shaping the Twentieth Century, edited by Mark Connelly, J Fox, Stefan Goebel and Ulf Schmidt (Bloomsbury, 2019). Rather, apart from Nicholas Cull's chapter on Apartheid era South Africa and Naren Chitty's meta-overview of the subject, the Edward Elgar Handbook examines exclusively contemporary case-studies, including Brexit, Donald Trump's presidency, anti-semitism within Britain's Labour Party, Cambridge Analytica, Boko Haram, the war in Syria, Islamic State, and the way propaganda has shaped discourses around refugees and migrants. We also include more conceptual chapters that consider propaganda from fresh perspectives: how media literacy can confront modern propaganda, and the value of 'fact-checking'; the connection between propaganda and piety and altruism; how 'fake news' has affected trust and behaviour; and the construction of 'propaganda bubbles' in a landscape characterised as 'fractured globalisation.'  

The editors dedicate this volume to three giants in the field of media and communications studies who inspired us and so many of the contributors, as well as generations of scholars and students across the world:

Professor Nicholas Pronay, founder of the Institute of Communications Studies at the University of Leeds and a pioneer in the field of historical approaches to propaganda

Professor Philip M. Taylor, 1954-2010

Professor Jay Blumler, 1924-2021 

I present here the contents list. You can find a link to the publisher's first advertisement here: Handbook on Political Propaganda

Introduction:  Gary D. Rawnsley, Yiben Ma, and Kruakae Pothong

World Propaganda and Personal Insecurity: Intent, Content and Contentment by Naren Chitty

Democracies and War Propaganda in the 21st Century by Piers Robinson

Fake News, Trust, and Behaviour in the Digital World by Terry Flew 

Cambridge Analytica by David R. Carroll

'Believe Me': Political Propaganda in the Age of Trump by Gary D. Rawnsley

The Information War Paradox by Peter Pomerantsev

Digital Propaganda as Symbolic Convergence: The Case of Russian Ads During the 2016 US Presidential Election by Corneliu Bjola and Ilan Manor

Getting the Message Right in Xi Jinping's China: Propaganda, Story Telling and the Challenge of Reaching People's Emotions by Kerry Brown

Political Communication in the Age of Media Convergence in China by Xiaoling Zhang and Yiben Ma

Xi Jinping's Grand Strategy for Digital Propaganda by Titus Chen

Constructing its Own Reality: The CCP's Agenda for the Hong Kong Anti-Extradition Bill Movement by Luwei Rose Luqiu

Sexuality and Politics: 'Coming Out' in German and Chinese Queer Films by Hongwei Bao

The Compassion 'Spectacle': The Propaganda of Piety, Virtuosity and Altruism within Neoliberal Politics by Colin Alexander

Political Propaganda and the Global Struggle Against Apartheid, 1948-1994 by Nicholas J. Cull

Refugees, Migration and Propaganda by Gillian McFadyen

Bexit Uncertainties: Political Rhetoric vs British Core Values in the NHS by Georgia Spiliopoulos

The Media, Antisemitism and Political Warfare in Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party, 2015-2019 by James R. Vaughan

Terrorist Propaganda by Afzal Ashraf

Propaganda Through Participation: Counter-Terrorism Narratives in China by Chi Zhang

Countermeasures to Extremist Propaganda: A Strategy for Countering Absolutist Religious Beliefs in Northeast Nigeria by Jacob Udo Udo Jacob

Imagined Minorities: Making Belief and Making Real Images of Ethnic Harmony in Chinese Tourism by Melissa Shani Brown and David O'Brien

The Language of Protest: Slogans and the Construction of Tourism Contestation in Barcelona by Neil Hughes

The Mexican 2018 Presidential Election in the Media Landscape: Newspaper Coverage, TV Spots, and Twitter Interaction by Ruben Arnoldo Gonzalez

Political Propaganda and Memes in Mexico: The 2018 Presidential Election by Penelope Franco Estrada and Gary D. Rawnsley         

Political Parties, Rallies, and Propaganda in India by Andrew Wyatt

Media and Majoritarianism in India: Eroding Soft Power? by Daya Thussu

Korean Cultural Diplomacy in Laos: Soft Power, Propaganda, and Exploitation by Mary J. Ainslie

Fact-Checking False Claims and Propaganda in the Age of Post-Truth Politics: The Brexit Referendum by Jen Birks

Beyond the Smear Word: Media Literacy Educators Tackle Contemporary Propaganda by Renee Hobbs


Thursday, 25 July 2019

Draft Introduction to Chance of a Lifetime (1950)

I haven't posted any blogs here since I moved to China in August 2018. I am working on several projects at the moment, and will therefore publish here some thoughts about those projects and drafts of papers/chapters I am working on. 

The first is the Introduction to a paper I am writing about the 1950 movie, Chance of a Lifetime. I have been thinking about this subject for quite some time, and I am delighted I can now get around to writing. Comments welcome.   

Looking back, the black-and-white postwar images seem appropriate. Life in peacetime Britain was grey, threadbare, dreary and hopeless. There was a national sense of “Was this what we fought for?” As one American commentator put it, the British certainly believed they had won the war, but they behaved as though they had lost it (McCrum, 2009: 6).

Chance of a Lifetime (1950, dir. Bernard Miles) represents a cinematic bridge from British movies made in the Second World War to the realism of the ‘angry young men’ kitchen sink dramas of the late 1950s and 1960s. Conceived by director/actor Bernard Miles in 1947 (the year of Britain’s coldest winter of the century), Chance depicts in microcosm worker-management relations at a time of economic austerity, continued rationing, strikes, and the British government’s export push for the manufacturing sector.

Writer, director, actor, Bernard Miles

 This paper centres on the film’s portrayal of class relations and in particular the recovery of the middle classes, represented in Chance by Adam Watson (played by Kenneth More). When neither owner nor worker can run the factory successfully or efficiently, the middle class takes over its management in co-operation with the owner. While offering a narrative around cross-class collaboration in difficult times – a legacy of the war movies made in the 1940s – Chance positions the middle class and the owning class as the saviours of the factory. At the end of the film, the workers are apparently happy to return to their rightful place on the workshop floor, albeit with greater respect for the responsibilities of management.
            My analysis takes as its starting point Neil Rattigan’s essay, ‘The Last Gasp of the Middle Class: British War Films of the 1950s’, written for Wheeler W. Dixon’s collection, Reviewing British Cinema, 1900-1992: Essays and Interviews (1994: 143-53). Rattigan argues British films made in the 1950s about the Second World War attempted ‘to bring about a return of the repressed middle class’ and reflect a ‘fear that the middle class had lost social and cultural centrality within British society during the war because of the demands of a people’s war’ (ibid.: 145). The election of the Labour government in 1945 following the largest swing ever recorded in a British General Election (10.7 percent from the Conservative Party to Labour) confirmed that returning to the status quo ante bellum was not an option. Rattigan claims that the war films of the 1940s ‘rewarded’ the working class for the part they played in the conflict, but portrayed them using stereotypes and comical motifs. Robert Murphy writes that British films during the war were concerned with the conflict’s ‘transforming effect … turning timid, ineffectual civilians into warriors and war workers, as if the war were a blessing which enabled people to realise their potential’ (Murphy, 2009: 223).
            In contrast, the war films of the 1950s ‘represented a reflection of and a contribution to a last-ditch effort by the dominant culture to “keep the lid on” the British social revolution, an effort complicated by a middle-class “backlash” against the way in which images of a people’s war had given emphasis to the working class and taken the middle class for granted in wartime propaganda’ (Rattigan, 1994: 149). We might even go so far as to suggest that Chance of a Lifetime confirms Rattigan’s thesis of nostalgia for a time when ‘the British stood together in their various social positions, united in common goals and communality’ (Rattigan, 1994: 150, original emphasis).  By the end of the film both workers and management have worked together as they did in the war, but this time for the benefit of the factory, and they all return to their rightful positions in the social hierarchy. Only More’s character, Adam Watson, has been elevated to management. This was the basis of the communist Daily Worker’s critique of the film:

[T]he film sets up a situation where the workers are bound to fail, and then gives the impression from the failure that workers everywhere could never run a business without the boss. Anyone seeing it would come away with one main impression- that the workers can’t do without the boss, that they should collaborate with him’ (Daily Worker, 11 May 1950).    

While this assessment is not without its merits, it fails to understand the contribution of the middle class in pulling the factory into a modern era of both production and management.

Basil Radford as factory owner, Mr Dickinson, Josephine Wilson as Miss Cooper, and Kenneth More as Adam Watson

I acknowledge the detailed history of Chance provided by Vincent Porter (1999: 181-199) in his essay, ‘Feature Film and the Mediation of Historical Reality: Chance of a Lifetime – a case study’. Porter offers deep background on the development and production of the film based on interviews (most notably with Bernard Miles) and archival research, as well as audience responses to the film gleaned from Mass Observation surveys. Porter describes how, ‘In a sense, Chance of a Lifetime was the first truly neo-realist British film. It was not only one of the first non-studio feature films to be made in Great Britain, but was also the first to be made about a contemporary subject which used real locations, both out-of-doors and inside genuine houses, factories and pubs’ (Porter, 1999: 187).


Porter, Vincent (1999), 'Feature Film and the Mediation of Historical Reality: Chance of a Lifetime - a case study, Media History, Vol.5, No.2: 181-199.

Murphy, Robert (2009), 'The Heart of Britain: British Cinema at War', in Robert Murphy (ed.), The British Cinema Book, 3rd edn. (London: BFI), pp.223-231.

Rattigan, Neil (1994), 'The Last Gasp of the Middle Class: British War Films of the 1950s', in Wheeler Winston Dixon (ed.), Re-Viewing British Cinema, 1900-1992 (New York: State University of New York Press), pp.143-153.

McCrum, Robert (2009), 'The Second World War: Six years that changed this country for ever', The Observer, 23 August.


Thursday, 12 July 2018

Some thoughts on soft power rankings

Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I was obsessed, like so many other young people at that time, with the music charts. Every Sunday afternoon we would listen to Radio 1 to know which artists were climbing the charts, who were falling and, most importantly, who was Number One that week.

I am reminded of my preoccupation with the music charts as Portland publishes its latest Soft Power 30 report. This is an attempt to rank countries according to their alleged soft power resources and capacity with much celebration - especially within the British Council -  that the UK is Number 1.

What does this mean? Well, very little. It is a beauty contest approach to soft power that focuses overwhelmingly on cultural and educational outputs, encourages governmental and non-governmental actors and institutions to obsess over the perception of their activities, promotes the false idea that generating soft power can be strategised, and is a distraction from engaging in policy initiatives that will genuinely make a difference at home and abroad, rather than simply alter one's place in the rankings.

The bottom line is simple: Do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, not because it may generate more soft power or increase the number of tourists or students to our shores. Getting the right policy right is absolutely essential, which means not accepting the question that rankings encourage: 'How can we get them to like us more?'  The generation of soft power is a by-product of how governments behave, not an end in itself. It is a resource not an instrument.  Governments can only strategise how to govern; they cannot strategise how to generate more soft power, only give the public and cultural diplomacy instruments the authority and resources to do a better job of communicating it. As I have argued before, if you feel you need to have a soft power strategy, it means you don't have any. Reading such surveys is like holding up a mirror and letting countries see in its reflection what they want to see - a positive or less than positive image of one's image: But so what?

Rankings also encourage users to question the inclusion or exclusion of particular countries. The 2018 Soft Power 30, for example, does not include Taiwan, even though it is a functioning democracy that practices and promotes liberal-democratic values and has enormous cultural capacity (a metric that rankings particularly relish). If we insist on measuring soft power, then Taiwan should be almost at the top - if not at the very top - among countries in Asia. Taiwan does the right thing because it is the right thing to do, especially in terms of aid and humanitarian assistance to its neighbours. It is the first in Asia to legalise same sex marriage. What other measures of soft power do we need to include Taiwan in such rankings?  

The UK government and other institutions engaged in global outreach - especially the British Council who seem to commission these soft power reports and surveys on a regular basis - would do well to avoid such rankings and sidestep any drive towards seeing the UK in a soft power race or competition with any other international actor. It isn't. Rankings do not and cannot measure in a qualitative way what is truly valuable: the actual response of target audiences to the UK's soft power capacity, and  how such audiences change their opinions or behaviour in relation to their engagement with the UK (ie. focus more on 'power').

In his 2009 book subtitled Adventures in British Democracy, Patrick Hannan reported on a decision to 'restore free NHS care to failed asylum seekers in Wales' in 2008. He concluded, 'The message is clear: we are good people'. The image is not constructed; it is a consequence of behaviour and the principles we maintain.

Soft power derives from the 'power of example' and 'doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do', not because we are in a race to be Number One in the charts.      


Patrick Hannan (2009), A Useful Fiction: Adventures in British Democracy (Bridgend: Seren), p.130.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

A tale of two soft powers: Wales and Taiwan

As readers of my work will already know, I depart from the idea that "culture" is a defining feature of a nation-state's soft power capacity. Rather, I argue that soft power derives from political institutions and processes; their transparency and accountability, the guaranteed freedoms of assembly, speech, and the right to criticise one's own government; and from the way governments behave towards both their own citizens and towards citizens of other nation-states. Sometimes, this means allowing difficult, uncomfortable and unpalatable opinions to surface.

Two stories appeared in 48 hours to demonstrate the considerable soft power capacity of both Taiwan and Wales. Courtesy of Klaus Bardenhagen, a German reporter who lives and works in Taiwan, I found this photo of pro-China activists in Taiwan.

This will make many people living inside and outside Taiwan uneasy. However, this is soft power in action. Taiwan is sending a positive message to the international community that it tolerates the public expression of opinions and political positions that may be contrary to mainstream ideas. This communicates Taiwan's democratic values, and stands as a powerful contrast to the PRC's political culture: would China's government allow or tolerate any such mobilisation for Taiwan's independence?

Wales has a different, though equally powerful narrative, one that moves beyond the expression of Welsh culture. On 12th April 2018, BBC Wales news reported how 'A family who fled the war in Syria have thanked a Ceredigion town for helping them rebuild their lives'. Readers learn that 'The Alchikh family came to Wales as part of the Home Office's community sponsorship scheme after local group Croeso Telfi raised thousands of pounds to take part'. You can see the BBC's story here: Syrian refugees thank people of Cardigan for help. As I have said many times, actions always speak louder than words, and by embracing refugees Wales is projecting a positive message about core values; and it helps not because it wishes to be seen to be helping, but just to help - the most powerful  message of all.

Wales and Taiwan have tremendous soft power capacities - for example, by upholding values of common decency, treating the vulnerable and dissenting opinions well and with respect - but I argue they both need help to identify and communicate this soft power.