Sneer and Smear (2)

It goes back a long way…

For Eva K Bartlett, independent journalist…

In my lengthy media-criticism posting of the other week — you remember: that 5,300-word analysis of what ought to have been a career-ending article by the BBC’s Gabriel Gatehouse — I not only mentioned that the essence of propaganda is repetition, but also sought to include a handy demonstration in the form of a succession of anti-Putin front covers from The Economist.

If you looked at those covers carefully, though, you’ll have observed that there was slightly more to them than simple ‘repetition’ of any single anti-Putin message: while there was nothing about them that could be described as ‘inventive’, ‘nuanced’ or ‘subtle’, there was at least some measure of diversity across the entire collection.

Needless (I hope) to say, I did take care to ensure that my text included a juicy clue as to how this diversity is organised — and, just in case anyone wasn’t paying attention at that point (5,300 words is a lot to take in from a screen, I freely admit), I want to use this posting to flesh it out a little.

The clue was actually to be found in the paragraph where I first mentioned the way that official enemies are presented as both terrifying and ludicrous … and then linked it to that 2008 psychology paper which presents ‘Warmth and Competence as Universal Dimensions of Social Perception‘: in my own informal application and extension of this ‘stereotype content model’ (don’t blame Cuddy et al. for what may be purely my sins!), I described “the Western image of the ‘terrifying’ Putin as being a ‘low warmth’ stereotype, and the ‘ludicrous’ Putin as a reflection of the need to indicate ‘low competence’.” At that point in my text I was, of course, discussing the BBC’s manipulative reporting of a Russian election campaign; but, as I will now show, the very same tactic reveals itself with remarkable clarity in our succession of Economist covers.

Yes, what I’m saying here is that these are the psychological rails upon which our propaganda runs. It’s an ambitious claim to  make (especially for a blogging nonentity like myself): let me see how well I can make the claim stand up. Let’s start from scratch with a few propaganda basics, and then add the psychology one element at a time…

If you want the general public to acquiesce in the face of elite-serving foreign-policy actions that burden them with enormous expenditures and ‘opportunity costs’ (i.e. those incurred by sustained economic warfare; military invasions and occupations; ongoing weapons development and procurement; a bloated and unproductive ‘armed forces’ establishment, etc), it is necessary for that public to feel that its safety is threatened. For this to happen, painting a targeted foreign leader as a ‘low warmth’ stereotype is an absolute necessity: your attempts to take charge of the public’s ‘social perception’ will see you presenting that leader as someone who only wants what’s worst for them. Well, here’s our first element — in the form of the ‘terrifying’ Putin.

Welcome to the world of the ‘low warmth stereotype’ (9 examples)…

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What we see in that little assemblage is a fairly wide selection of images — all of them ‘low warmth’ stereotypes (yes, it’s ‘warmth’ in the straightforward human-emotional sense): we have the slimy, clammy, many-tentacled octopus; the all-controlling puppet-master; the inhuman alien destroyer; the spider at the centre of its web; the ‘Roaring Twenties’ gangster with fedora and Tommy-gun; the nationalist strong-man; the out-of-sight spymaster; the steely-eyed kidnapper; the hard-man from the East who gazes impassively at the Western horizon as his flag-waving hordes advance into an already shattered city…

But that’s not all we see. For, as every reader will recall, the ‘stereotype content model’ obliges us to analyse in terms of ‘competence’ as well as ‘warmth’; and, as I think you’ll agree, all nine of those images can safely be described as implying ‘high competence‘. To take just a single example: ‘Putin the puppet-master’ — his unconcerned gaze rising to meet yours; his every finger controlling a string! — is not being presented as someone who’s no good at it

In short, we need to consider ‘warmth’ and ‘competence’ together — and, once we realise this, we see that a range of possibilities exists. Self-evidently, a non-compliant President Putin — an obstacle to the US empire’s drive towards lawless hegemony and zero-sum wealth extraction — is never going to find his positive qualities celebrated within that empire’s power-serving media … but this restriction still allows two possibilities for hostile, would-be undermining depiction: ‘low warmth’ combined with ‘high competence’ (SCARY!), and ‘low warmth’ combined with ‘low competence’ (PATHETIC!).

In fact, it actually allows for three possibilities — for the very simple reason that a political player inevitably presents a personal image as well as a policy profile, and each of those two dimensions can be subject to exploitation in terms of negative representations. Thus my adopted, revised version of the ‘stereotype content model’ would predict that we should see ‘low warmth’ combined not only with ‘high competence’, but also with ‘low competence’ measured along two different axes: we should be able to distinguish ‘low competence — political variety‘ and ‘low competence — personal variety

And, as can easily be demonstrated, our Economist front pages perform exactly as the model predicts. Here, for example, is ‘low warmth’ combined with ‘low competence — political variety‘ (five examples)…

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The messages could hardly be more obvious — or more clearly based on wish-fulfilment fantasies: ‘There’s no substance to his project!‘; ‘It’s all falling apart!‘; ‘This is the final stage for him!‘; ‘Their economy has been wrecked!‘; ‘Look at the mess he’s got himself in!‘…

And now we move on to the third of our three possibilities: ‘low warmth’ combined with ‘low competence — personal variety‘ (five examples)….

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It might be worth pointing out that ‘low competence’ in this specific (personal) dimension is to be gauged according to the extent to which the figure can be presented as having fallen embarrassingly short of the standards of ‘dignity’ and ‘gravitas’ required to create a ‘statesmanlike’ image of the kind that ‘political credibility’ and ‘public respect’ supposedly depend upon. Thus, when Putin is depicted as a narcissistically selfish and insensitive ice dancer; as attempting to conquer the world while armed with just a pair of boxing gloves; as pretending to an anachronistic title and a ridiculously out-of-date military uniform with surrealistic yet self-aggrandising ornamentation; or as going bare-chested in inappropriate fantasised contexts — what we see are attempts to show him in this second ‘low competence’ light.

[[Insert 1: Can these two forms of ‘low competence’ signification be presented at the same time — so that the propagandist puts across a message in which ‘low competence — personal variety‘ is found alongside ‘low competence — political variety‘? The truth is that they can indeed be combined, as long as you know how to do it — as the BBC’s propagandists certainly do. In this series’ previous posting, I actually included a BBC example that can be analysed this way (though I didn’t pursue the point at the time). Take another look at the following Twitter message from the ‘BBC World Service’…

Are we given ‘low competence — personal variety‘? Yes, we are: there is V. V. Putin again throwing stereotypical dignity and gravitas to the winds by once more getting himself photographed without a shirt. (How many photos of the guy’s chest does the obsessed BBC keep…?!?) Do we also see ‘low competence — political variety‘? Yes, we do — albeit in a different (verbal) dimension: “That very sure touch is starting to leave him…“, alleges the top text; “… Putin is out of step with his power base and Russian popular support“: what could be more obviously a case of political inadequacy than that — notwithstanding that some, most or all of the diagnosis will rest on the inevitable wish-fulfilment fantasies…? Note also that, simultaneously with this message of PATHETIC!, we also receive a message of SCARY!: we have low warmth indicated by the sunglasses (emotional expression via the eyes is obstructed), while the now-requisite high competence is signalled verbally by that ‘What does Putin want?’ malarkey (‘we need experts to help us fathom his intentions!’), and non-verbally by relaxed posture (‘fully in control’); the absence of other people (‘no-one else is needed’); and those same sunglasses (hiding the eyes tends to promote a ‘powerful’ and ‘high status’ identity; ask any US traffic cop. It might also be worth pointing out that while a Western propagandist’s interest in Putin’s pectorals comes from their usefulness as ‘low competence’ indicators, this is a deliberate cultural misreading: to the Russian voter, the president’s shirtlessness will more likely be taken as signifying both ‘high competence’ (physical fitness and capacity to cope with harsh climate and dangerous wilderness) and ‘high warmth’ (it reveals his Orthodox cross pendant — actually his baptismal cross, given to him by his mother and blessed at the ‘Garden Tomb’ in Jerusalem in 1993). And if you want me to cite some proper research, I can: in Post-Soviet Chaos: Violence and Dispossession in Kazakhstan by Joma Nazpary (Pluto Press, 2002) — a study based on field-work carried out in 1995-6 (i.e. the middle years of the Yeltsin period) — we read that: ‘The importance of a man’s physical strength is partly a Soviet cultural inheritance. As a militarised society it highlighted the physical strength of men. They have a Day of Men (muzhskoi den’), 23 February, when women congratulate men. This day is also the Day of the Soviet army.”]]

I should stress that I’ve looked around for other Economist covers on which Vladimir Vladimirovich is represented, and so far I’ve not found any. If you happen to know of any more, do tell me, and I’ll see if they fit the ‘stereotype content model’ in the form high-handedly appropriated and modified by yours truly. Certainly it required no effort at all to take these present 19 examples and fit them into a set of psychological co-ordinates calibrated in terms of ‘warmth’ and (two types of) ‘competence’.

Nor, of course, am I implying that The Economist is the only offender when it comes to using ‘cover art’ to lead the perceptions of the supposedly intelligent and thoughtful reading public in such witlessly elite-serving directions. (For one cover among many, see the ‘Newsweek’ cover opposite; for a horrifying example of what is currently being offered online to the UK’s schoolchildren, see here.) You will in fact observe this phenomenon across our entire state-corporate media — inevitably: the priorities of the corporate state could never be other, at base, than the priorities of its media … and, as a result, these priorities very quickly become part of the ‘conventional wisdom’ accepted and promulgated by well-connected celebrities; by the heads of major institutions; and thence by every ordinary, powerless person whose own psychology causes them to feel more respect for power than for powerlessness.

And that is a lot of people. The other week, I found myself back in what might be termed a ‘classroom’ situation; but one in which — unusually! — I was not the person ‘in charge’. At one point the session leader proceeded to inject a little quip about Putin into his presentation — no, it wasn’t remotely relevant to the matter in hand; but something made him do it. Presumably it was that very same something that then led literally every person in the group apart from me to laugh along obediently. “Putin! Russia! Elections! Ha ha ha…!

Well, Russia has indeed had its presidential election, and Putin has emerged as the winner. Would you like to see an analysis of the BBC’s response to this event — as displayed in one of its so-called ‘flagship’ news and current affairs radio programmes?

You would? Very well, then. Let’s see what we get when the programme’s coverage is examined in the manner employed and developed in this posting and its predecessor. Yes, Sneer and Smear (3) will be along in a few days, inshallah.

In the meantime, ponder The Economist — not ‘as it is’, but as it could never, ever be within the structural constraints of a media system that prides itself on its ‘freedom’ above all, and sees its dedication to truth-telling as second to no-one’s…



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8 thoughts on “Sneer and Smear (2)

  1. Love the subheading on your imagined Economist. The ‘low warmth, low competence’ strategy seems well discerned: you make a compelling argument for it and I for one am persuaded. One of your other maxims: the essence of propaganda is repetition (I think that’s how you formulated it) is spot on too. I’ve been saying that myself for years. Great stuff, look forward to the next one.


  2. Thank you for the work you put into analysing this, Mark.

    “I should stress that I’ve looked around for other Economist covers on which Vladimir Vladimirovich is represented, and so far I’ve not found any.”

    Have you looked around for Economist covers on which another leader of a great power is represented?


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