1 Introduction

Beginning in the 1990s, the democratic transition in Mexico has been defined as the gradual substitution of an authoritarian regime characterized by the domination by single political party: the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), by a competitive party system, based on dependable political-electoral institutions and procedures. The data available in the last decade denotes a more plural and inclusive democracy, in which the peaceful change and transition of political power ceased to be the exception to become the norm. Even recognizing the critiques of this “fuzzy” transition (Villa 2010, p. 19), it is important to start from the fact that, in its post-authoritarian period, political representatives in both chambers of Congress, on behalf of the Federal and State Executive Branches, as well as in the conformation of the 32 local Chambers of Deputies, is markedly opposed to how it was in 1988.

It is surprising, however, that this democratic transition has occurred within a highly dysfunctional political communication system, still defined today by the concentration of ownership of the mass media and the rendering of telecommunications services (cf. Bárcenas and Lemus 2017, pp. 178–180), the leading role of the government as the disruptive voice in the communications market (cf. Vaca-Baqueiro 2015, p. 551; Castaño 2017, p. 12), the systematic physical, political and judicial violence exerted against journalists (cf. Salazar 2021), and the marked media illiteracy that sows and enables a high level of disinformation that prevails in Mexican society (cf. Article XIX 2021, p. 18).

How can Mexico’s democratic transition be understood in light of the changes and continuities of its media system? In this paper we propose to review the contemporary history of political communication in Mexico by identifying four eras that could shed some light into the continuous evolution of its media and political system.

In this manner, we begin from a first era that took place from the 1960s until 1994, which we refer to as the era of information control from political power, protected, to a great extent by the Federal Radio and Television Law of 1960 and the political-electoral reform of 1977, both written from the peak of the political domination of the PRI and also from the then nascent mass communication media system. An era also marked by the interference of a totalitarian State in the press, radio and television, empowered by a corporate complicity between both (cf. Guerrero 2010, p. 236) instrumented by self-censorship and the scarce presence of political and informative counterweights against the official narrative (cf. Escobedo 2004, pp. 97–98; Peschard 2000, pp. 88–90).

A second era, from 1995 to 2006, was centered on the emergence and consolidation of the “fourth power” in the shape of the two television networks, Televisa and TV Azteca, and the change in the correlation of forces between a State whose political control began to weaken against the marked media influencing, or mediatization process, but also against the growing electoral competitiveness that challenged the State party that would lose the Presidency for the first time in the year 2000 (cf. Fuentes-Berain 2001, paragraphs 53–54).

Following this longitudinal path, we propose a third era that lasted from 2007 to the beginning of 2018, which offered a moment of political realignment between the State and the mass communication media, as well as the consolidation of a public digital space that replicated the logic and practices of political communication in terms of its digital migration, while at the same time was able to construct its own communication codes vis a vis a one sided media mainstream (cf. Gómez and Sosa-Plata 2011, pp. 38–43).

Finally, we discuss a fourth era that, although still in process, has been deployed as an unfinished process from the second decade of the 21st century (2018–to date), marked by the abundance of information, the fragmentation of audiences in a context of accentuated post-modernism in which rationalism, objectivity and the relevance of public debate has given way to momentary, irrelevant and emotional conversation (cf. Conde and Moreno 2011, pp. 92–93). Different global trends converge here that, without being entirely new, have taken on a greater relevance in the Mexican case, such as, for example, personalized information (cf. Van Aelst et al. 2012, pp. 3–6), info-entertainment (cf. Nael Jebril et al. 2013; Prior 2003, pp. 152–156), its counter-part in poli-entertainment (cf. Riegert and Collins 2015), digital propaganda and planned disinformation (cf. Benkler et al. 2018, p. 77), as well as the constant use of political power to polarize public discourse framed by an alarming rise in criminal and judicial violence against both male and female journalists throughout the length and breadth of the country (cf. Article XIX 2021; Torres 2013, pp. 27–35). (Table 1).

Table 1 The four eras of political communication in Mexico

For the development of these eras, we have taken the emblematic text published at the end of the 20th century by Blumler and Kavanagh (1999) as a reference to illustrate the main social and media changes that had molded political communication in British and US cases. In a similar vein to that of the authorsFootnote 1, we seek to show the significant changes that justify the identification of four eras of political communication in Mexico.

To do so, it can be suggested that the Mexican case, together with most of the others in Latin America, constitutes a type of B‑side of the evolutionist study of the political communication focused particularly on Europe and North America. A B-side in which a hystorically dysfunctional media ecosystem has never developed into an independent and sustainable publich sphere. This is so because many of the assumptions made in their study and the Eurocentric-Anglo-Saxon conceptualization are incompatible with the structural conditions in Latin America (i.e., elevated levels of social marginalization, the digital divide, high levels of corruption, violence and impunity) and other regions of the world (see Brants and Voltmer 2011). In other words, the large majority of the studies originating from this Anglo-Saxon circuit of thought is based on fairly inclusive and relatively functional public spheres. These studies assume that state institutions’ communication processes flow through media organizations that compete freely to create an impact on the opinions and actions of the citizenry from the dual logic of the free market and the guiding role of the State to guarantee access to information.

Accordingly, in this circuit the main concern has been the degradation of democratic institutions and the appearance of communication dysfunctions (i.e., disinformation, populism, polarization, freedom of expression conditioned to lack of or partial accountability) to which the large majority of Latin American countries, at least this is the case in Mexico, are used to following decades of political, economic and social instability. So, instead of assuming a “declining approach” from an idealized system in peril, in this paper we consider the Mexican case as a less “popular” version of mainstream political communication studies (i.e. anglophone and European cases) and yet a useful ecosystem to offer theoretical insights into postcolonial states and evolving democracies (i.e. Latinamerica or Africa).

On conducting a similar exercise, González and Echeverría (2017, p. 40) depart from the concept of modernity to conduct a historical review taking exogenous forces (linked to the political system) and endogenous forces (linked to the media system) into account when evaluating the evolution of journalism in Mexico. The authors concluded that this journalistic modernization process has been notably irregular; firstly, as a consequence of the interaction between both forces on an unstable, dynamic and volatile field, and secondly, due to the substantial differences among such diverse media markets and sub-national level. In this paper we consider this diversity to be a fundamental limitation when taking the national level as our unit of analysis, because clearly it would be impossible to talk about a homogeneous media system in Mexico given the structural differences among each one of the 32 States of the Republic.

Finally, to provide an overview of news consumption in Mexico, the Reuters Digital News Report 2021 shows that 84% of people declare that they consume news online, 67% from social networks, 44% from television and 21% newspapers. It is important to note that in Mexico, 79% of the people surveyed declared that they consume news primarily through their mobile phones(cf. Newman et al. 2021).

2 First era. Information control by the political power (1960–1994)

The bases of a liberal media system were constructed at the peak of the domination of the State party and the simulation of an electoral and representative democracy, even though the political power exerted strong control over it. On the one hand and thanks to the revolutionary inheritance that gave rise to the 1917 Constitution, newspapers, magazines and other publications were constantly threatened under the sword of Damocles wielded by a Press Law that, on ruling pursuant to its First, Second and Third Articles, put the protection of private life, people’s morals and respect for public order and peace before freedom of expression, all such defects typified as crimes punishable by prison sentences and monetary fines.

One the other hand, the granting of concessions to commercially operate a broadcast signal adopted a logic of elitist agreements among radio and television entrepreneurs. It involved pioneers in their field but who were subject to a discretionary fiscal dynamic that particularly from 1969 onwards, were required to pay a portion of their taxes in-kind in the form of airtime that would be allocated to the State to perform social public interest communication tasks (cf. Granados 1982). This fiscal policy together with the opaque policy for assigning radio and television concessions would result in a private broadcasting system conditioned by corporate negotiations with the government in office. This led to high levels of media concentration in two private television networks (Televisa and TV Azteca) and nine radio broadcasters (Radiorama, Acir, Grupo Televisa, Radio Fórmula, MVS, Multimedios, Ultra Telecom, OEM and Grupo Ángeles) allowing for the arrival of a third television network until 2017 (cf. Bárcenas and Lemus 2017).

2.1 Socio-political and media context

Having established institutional bases to guarantee the governability of a country without relinquishing political seats in Congress and keeping the political opposition’s aspirations of representation at a safe distance, the PRI-regime created positive incentives to maintain a margin of control over the media. These incentives included the ease of constructing radio and television networks that cornered regional and national markets, fiscal agreements, access to privileged information for sympathetic journalists and cash payments for favorable treatment in the media of the sitting administration (i.e., kickbacks to journalists).

In the same manner and taking advantage of the State monopoly for the purchase, production and distribution of newsprint during the 1940s (cf. Zacarías 1996, p. 76) and ensuring union control of newsagents and newspaper sellers (cf. Bohmann 1997, p. 295), the government was able to implement negative measures, such as boycotting the operations of the media critical of it. Although the common denominator of this was self-censorship (i.e., the media should interpret the lengths to which they could take their criticism), there were no lack of cases in which the government acted expressly with the intention of limiting any media outlet that was critical for it. Such was the case of the magazine Proceso in the 1980s, the judicial persecution of critical pens, the boycott of distribution at points of sale, and in extreme cases, direct intervention in the management of independent newspapers, such as the case of the internal coup against the management of the Excélsior newspaper in 1976.

Thus, a corporate relationship was formalized between the Mexican state and the nascent media industry (cf. Orme 1997, p. 255). It is no surprise, therefore, that during the decade of the stabilizing development of the 1970s, the media was an important instrument for the consolidation of the “revolutionary nationalism” narrative and later, the so-called “Mexican miracle”, supported by the oil bonanza and a certain degree of stability in public finances, although remaining silent about the installation of a system of structural corruption ingrained in the Federal and local public administration.

Thus the government focused on procuring a subsidized and dependent press in the shape of an artificial information market. One of its outcomes was the absence of empowered audiences that could act as a counterweight to the client-driven logic of the PRI-regime. Newspapers were more dependent on the government’s advertising revenue than on their circulation figures, of which there were not objective indicators. On the other hand, a television and radio broadcasting system focused on advertising sales under the rules or an authoritarian State and a simulated democracy (cf. Jiménez-Ottalengo 1976, p. 623). Otherwise, it would not be possible to understand the democratic regression experienced by Mexico hand in hand with the golden years of radio and television. While Televisa’s productions were exported to other Spanish-speaking countries at the full height of one of the most successful cultural industries in the modern history of the country (cf. Murphy 1995, p. 254), its coexistence with the political power and willingness to close spaces for debate, the absence of deliberation and criticism marked a corporate power-media relationship at the expense of a disinformed and a largely uncritical society.

This was the stage in which Mexican journalism constructed two of its still (dys)functional narrative pillars. First, the presidential focus in the style of news reading as a derivation to the president’s sayings and doings. Thus, omitting with it the roles of Congress, the Supreme Court or the Rule of Law as central components of the democratic life of any country. Second, the conformation of a statement-based journalism based not on documentary research but instead on the reproduction of public messages or conversations among different political players. The conformation of a type of blackboard of political messages delivered to be decoded using careful and well-orchestrated editing and curatorship. So, the terms “debate” and “confrontation” were defined based on a logic of filtrations and leaks placed in the media as unofficial messages between the different political groups in dispute for power within the government and the State party (cf. Bohmann 1997).

In this era, we will see the prolongation of the protectionist view of the State (a philanthropic ogre to quote Octavio Paz) who would soon become a great announcer entrusted with guaranteeing the technical and commercial viability of the media in exchange for self-censorship and ideological alignment (cf. Guerrero 2010, p. 237). With the passing of the years and the severe economic and political crises that shook the region in the 1980s, Mexican society would amass a call for the removal and withdrawal of a good part of the political class, but, above all, of the media that had shown its complicity with a corrupt regime ever more distant from its popular base and the urban middle classes—the main audiences of these communication channels.

The first Era found a ruthless epilogue in 1994 with three significant sociopolitical events that came to shape the future codes of political communication in Mexico. First, the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas on January 1st that came at odds with the modernization narrative built by exiting president Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988–1994). The immediate reaction from Televisa and a great majority of local media was to discredit the indigenous movement by criminalizing its leaders and minimizing their protests according to the government’s official sciript (cf. Ramírez 2015, p. 76). Second, the assassination on March 23 of the PRI’s presidential candidate and frontrunner, Luis Donaldo Colosio, and the ensuing media coverage adopting the “lone gunman” narrative by framing the magnicide as an act of a solitary individual. The historical reference point of Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s populist discourse against the “mafia in power”, which was so effective in his 2018 presidential campaign, derives precisely from this era. Third, the privatization in August 1993 of former public service system Imevision (channels 7, 13 and 22) and the foundation of TV Azteca (channels 7 and 13) the first serious competitor for Televisa and catalyst of the commercialization of Mexican television (Gómez 2004, p. 72). Although TV Azteca commercial development and political weight will mature in the second half of the nineties, the liberalizing politics of the first era paved the way for the second.

3 Second era. Consolidation of the “Fourth” power (1995–2005)

Two singular aspects, one economic and the other political, detonated the leverage of the second era. The main characteristic of both was that they fostered an unusual competitiveness among multiple players who until then had not participated with such determination in the ecosystem of Mexican media. In the economic field, the opening of markets with the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) among the United States, Mexico and Canada, in January 1994, encouraged the arrival of a large number of advertisers and commercial brands that saw in the Mexican market an opportunity for sales and competition as a result of the nascent consumption in the country. In the political aspect, the political regime gradually widened with increasing partisan plurality at all levels of government as a result of the electoral reforms that encouraged a level playing field for candidates to participate in elections.

A need for professionalization of political communication practices raised the bar for television networks, public relations agencies, advertisers, media planners, electoral competitors, political consultants, news agencies, content producers, political parties, as well as the government itself. Among the main characteristics of this era was the monetization of the message, the thriving growth of the persuasion economy through emerging advertising markets and a dispute for a contested political narrative. The power of the media to influence public opinion, particularly through broadcast news, increased its economic muscle and its political influence.

As the authoritarian state’s power was eclipsed by an influential television ecosystem, the profile of the media increased as the gatekeeper of not just information but also political competition. The transition to democracy redrew power zones, leaving federal and local governments with a diminished influence over the electorate and dependent on media corporations to materialize their political aspirations. The free market for the purchase of political advertising for electoral campaigns, established in the 1993 electoral reformFootnote 2, generated additional sources of revenue for media owners. They would no longer be government pawns but become instead the main conditioning factors for the electoral victories of a new political class.

3.1 Socio-political and media context

This era showed the institutionalization of what has been defined as the liberal-captured model (cf. Guerrero and Márquez 2014, p. 135) through the consolidation of a media system based on the television duopoly and the concentration of concessions in radio broadcasting groups grouped around a powerful National Radio and Television Industry Chamber (CIRT). On the other hand, a political system immersed in a transition of elites (cf. Villa 2010, pp. 23–24). Behind the smokescreen left by the first change of presidential power in 2000, when an unprecedented advertising model was introduced. The electoral triumph of Vicente Fox could not be explained without an intensive radio and television campaign that helped position the candidate among the electorate for over a year prior to the electionFootnote 3. Although the Federal Government already had sufficient resources to advertise its achievements and broaden its narrative, the arrival of Fox to the Presidency translated immediately into a significant increase in expenditure for the government in the purchase of radio and television airtime (cf. Esteinou 2009, paragraph 11).

Paradoxically, to the extent that his administration began a permanent communication campaign, Fox freed radio and television concessionaires from the obligation to pay their taxes in-kind with airtime. In exchange for a preferential treatment on their screens, the Fox administration opted to significantly increase the purchase of commercial airtime with public money instead of relying on what both television networks should pay as tax to the State. This was the logic of the first president of the democratic transition in the light of the television media duopoly. The legal and political conditions apt to foster a more competitive media system vanished with the complicity of the new government with the television networks. Instead of change, the newly elected party, Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), implemented an updated adaptation of PRI’s corporatism.

A specific case in the regulatory context arose with President Vicente Fox’s “mega-decree” (i.e. decretazo) in 2002, in which the two large television networks were exempt from a large part of their fiscal burden. The decision to reduce the percentage of daily time which radio and television concessionaires must pay the State from 12.5 to 1.25 meant annual losses of one hundred billion pesos per year for the Inland Revenue (cf. Trejo 2007, paragraph 30).

Few years later at the end of the Fox administration, his party together with the support of the opposition would pass in Congress a Constitutional reform to significantly change the landscape of television by favouring the concentration of concessions by current players and limiting the entrance of new ones. Defined as the “Televisa Law” that, among other things, prolonged renewals of radio and television concessions without the fiscal payment of considerations by commercially exploiting a public asset, as is the broadcasting space (cf. Esteinou and Alva 2009, pp. 60–63). Despite being ruled as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, the “Ley Televisa” became a clear indicator of how the transition of power would not alter the relations between the media and the State. The so-called democratic alternation after a 70-year PRI government would reveal a new governing party caving in to the interests of television networksFootnote 4.

In addition that, the preponderance of television was consolidated as a political showcase and a significant conditioning factor of the visibility and success of an electoral campaign, as well as the personal aspirations of any politician regardless of their partisan affiliation or professional track record (cf. Hughes 2006).

As a consequence, the political class came to depend increasingly on its media exposure. Their presence in the mass communication media, particularly in a pre-digital age, was molded among a citizenry used to the informative centrality of television as the main source of political news (cf. Escobedo 2004, pp. 101–102; Trejo 2004, pp. 147–148).

In terms of the message, the instrumentation of political communication in this era was characterized by a manipulation of information centered on the over-exposure of a government that developed new institutional arrangements with a great democratic liberalization (cf. Lawson 2002). A softening in the political coverage of journalism and the appearance of political satire programs and info-entertainment is also being noticed (cf. Echeverría and Rodelo 2021, pp. 2181–2184).

There was also a turn towards political plurality in Congress because there had been no parliamentary majorities since 1997, but under the constraints of de facto power players that conditioned access to screens and microphones to members of Congress, party leaders, candidates and governors. The term tele-seat appeared to refer to those legislators who, sponsored by the television networks, sought to protect their interests at a time in which the provision of triple-play services and the regulatory framework for state investment in telecommunications and fiber optical services came to the fore. To do so, government bodies were created with a certain degree of constitutional autonomy responsible for regulating communications matters, such was the case of the Federal Communications Commission, which reports to the Ministry of Communications and Transportation, although the television networks’ representatives quickly captured its membership and performance (cf. Garfias 2012, pp. 47–50).

The central pillar of this era and perhaps its main feature, was the normalization of the government as a large advertiser. The new model relocated the government’s discourse as just another advertiser that invests a large amount of money—Vicente Fox spent 814 million dollars in advertising during his six-year administration (cf. Martín 2013, paragraph 2)—to position him and his government as a brand. The governmental propaganda model was not only normalized but was adopted at a sub-national level under the auspices of State governors of all the political parties who very quickly replicated the media-power corporate logic in their states.

By the end of the second era political power seemed to be more accessible for opposition parties, however, changes in the political landscape seemed only to solidify the two dominant television networks’ role as the main career makers of the day. Legitimate elections aquired a true role in shifting local and federal powers. Nonetheless, the chance to compete in the political communication arena through media coverage and political advertising remained in the hands of a media system accostumed to negotiate even the smallest of soundbites.

4 Third era. Media legitimacy crisis, political realignment and digitalization (2006–2018)

If in the first era, mass media had declared to be the soldiers of PRI-ism and in the second it was the government that yielded to the interests of the television networks in exchange for visibility on their screens, the third was characterized by the digital disruption and the appearance of new global players who, through different technological and socio-digital platforms, began to vie for control of the public conversation, which before was monopolized by legacy media (i.e. TV, radio and the press). Two regulatory episodes that had a strong impact on the media system and the construction of the public conversation from a notably electoral viewpoint fall into this third era. The first is the case of the 2007–2008 electoral reform (cf. Juárez 2010a; Buendía and Azpiroz 2011) and the second is the case of a technological panorama more tilted towards the digital arena given the incentives for competition offered by the Federal Telecommunications Law enacted in 2014.

Following the post-electoral conflict of 2006, in which AMLOFootnote 5 blamed the inequality in the coverage and access to the mass communication media as responsible for his defeat, the 2007–2008 electoral reform would adopt a notably electoral logic to standardize the relationship between political power and the media. The reform was pro-state in character in terms of the commercial spots that the media were required to allocate free of charge to candidates and parties for them to use for their benefit in the promotion of their political campaigns. This phenomenon, detailed and analyzed in other texts (cf. Arellano and Jara 2013; Juárez and Arellano 2017; Valdés 2015) involved a consequential increase in the airtime broken into political advertising spots, known as “spotization”, of political discourse and electoral competition, and was the base of a hollow and immediate political communication with poorly produced publicity spots that were poorly evaluated by the electorate (cf. Martínez et al. 2013, p. 201). These messages were characterized for leaving proposals and solutions to problems to one side and instead focusing on attacks and criticism, rather than offering political information useful to the electorate (cf. Juárez and Brambila 2012, pp. 311–312).

This was how the main players in the media system would not only incur losses running into the millions due to the take-over by the state of commercial radio and television airtime for electoral processes (cf. Arellano and Jara 2013, p. 325), but they would also have to compete for audiences with the increase in the level of cable TV subscriptions (cf. Federal Telecommunications Institute 2019, p. 9), the arrival of the double screen (digital in addition to analog) in Mexican homes and the incorporation of a new national television network in October 2016 (i.e., Imagen). This era was marked by competition, the emergence of new media, the dispute for audiences and the arrival of what would be the giant of on-line content, streaming. Just one year after commencing transmissions, Imagen Television began to transmit its signal live via YouTube.

Once the new communication model was implemented, with clear rules on the administration of the State’s airtime for electoral advertising and the monitoring of news coverage by the electoral authority, unforeseen consequences emerged in the form of a black communication market replacing the once visibile purchase of electoral airtime to communication sub-products such as infomercialsFootnote 6, co-presentations, sponsorships and integrated products designed for governmental promotion by the TV networks’ advertising portfolio (cf. Juárez 2010b, paragraph 1, 2013, paragraph 3).

As a consequence of this reform and of the intention to preserve control over politics, the radio and television concessionaires grouped together in 2012 around the candidacy of Enrique Peña Nieto (PRI), who on occasions was labeled as the TV-candidate due to the over-exposure of his personal life on screen, including his marriage to a well-known soap opera actress. According to official figures of the National Information Access Institute (INAI), Peña’s six-year term recorded expenditure in governmental advertising of more than 2.6 billion dollars that were paid to legacy media. However, the end of this political cycle had a negative impact on the public’s credibility of broadcasting media and national newspapers (cf. Castaño 2017, p. 47).

The political spectacle, its coverage and the maximization of earnings by the large media corporations during Peña Nieto’s six-year term would be amplified by corruption scandals, the increase in criminal violence, leading to a kind of generalized disappointment in democracy by society (only 33% of Mexicans declared to be satisfied with democracy, according to Latinobarómetro’s annual report 2021, p. 39). Almost two decades after the first democratic change of power, the serious domestic problems (i.e., social inequality, corruption, impunity, criminal violence and an inefficient justice system subject to political interests) seemed to get worse. This dissatisfaction became fertile ground for the promotion of new policy formulas by presenting easy solutions and labeling the entire political class as a homogeneous, thieving and corrupt elite. Here the populist anti-elite discourse used by Andrés Manuel López Obrador gathered strength, who had been denouncing the interests of the corrupt class (i.e., the mafia in power), formed the platform of his third consecutive presidential campaign in 2018.

Finally, it is important to emphasize that, in terms of infrastructure, concessions and the update of television technology, the analog shutdown occurred in this third era. This technological step occurred when broadcasters stopped transmitting open television using analog signals to transmit solely through digital signals. Among the benefits brought by this change were a broader offer of channels and programs (multi-programming and multiplexing), improved audio and image quality and certain interactive services, such as electronic program guides, audio options for languages other than Spanish and subtitles, among others. This analog shutdown was part of a government view to maintain television as the core channel of entertainment, regardless of the growth of streaming services and that the rhythm of digital content had started to accelerate towards the final years of the coverage of this era. It was also a way for the government to pay debt to the television network owners.

The 2007–2008 electoral reform confirmed the centrality of television in the political communication system. Political advertising as a format occupied the go-to tool for candidates and political parties. Opposition parties and incumbents alike relied on mass communication products to convey their message to the public. A quantitative mindset prevailed by assuming the more ads they could broadcast the more chances they had to persuade viewers and thus obtain more votes. However, Mexican society was increasingly distrustful of political parties and their 30-second messages. For a country not familiarized with mudslinging campaigns, the negativity that characterized the 2006 presidential race became a landmark for confrontation as a narrative pillar of political discourse in a scenario of greater electoral competition (cf. Guerrero and Arellano 2012, pp. 141–146).

5 The fourth era. Audience atomization, violence and disinformation (2018 to date)

A generalized distrust among Mexican society towards mainstream media is being documented in the fourth era (cf. Mont’Alverne et al. 2021, paragraph 5). According to the Reuters Digital News Report 2021, 50% of Mexicans are concerned about false or misleading information presented by the government, politicians and political parties online. This is concerning but by all means not an exclusive Mexican trend (cf. Newman et al. 2021, p. 18). Today, democracies around the world face a challenging combination of distrust in public institutions and in mainstream media outlets. What digital disruption brought in countries with a longstanding fragile media ecosystem like Mexico was an acceleration of channels, platforms and contents dedicated to disseminate disinformation and thus becoming a direct threat to its democratic principles. Starting from president López Obrador himself who has normalized the use of false information in his administration (cf. Estrada 2022).

Under the argument that corrupt legacy media prevented social change in the past, this administration has promoted the appearance of a network of YouTube “news” channels and social media accounts of opportunistic “journalists” dedicated to amplify the presidential message. They have been granted the status of journalists by the government during the daily presidential press conference despite the lack of credentials, objectivity and accountability in their reporting. Looking at this particular political strategy through the lense of this article, it can be argued that the fourth era is characterized by an effort to delegitimize media corportations by associating them with a corrupt past while simultaneously elevating digital entreperneurs to the status of professional journalists.

The Mexican media ecosystem has become more complex because its historical vocal point, the Federal Government, has favored its fragmentation by repeatedly promoting mistrust in all news media and journalists that question the current administration’s narrative of transformation. Although AMLO’s administration has decided to continue investing significant public funds in promoting the government, it has introduced cutbacks in its annual advertising budget (cf. Brambila 2021). This has raised the stakes for media outlets to compete for public spending. And just like in the past, the way government advertising money is invested is discretional and lacks transparency and accountability. The main turning point between the third and fourth era is the transitional displacement of television as the main source of political news in the country. For example, in 2017 65% of people surveyed stated that their news source was TV; in 2018 62%; in 2019 59%; in 2020 48%; and, in 2021 44%. Which means that in a period of 4 years the consumption of news on TV decreased by more than 20% (cf. Newman et al. 2021).

It seems contradictory that despite ever more hard-fought elections at the ballot boxes, Mexican society is currently immersed in an unprecedented context of polarization, brought about, to a great extent, but not exclusively, by the government of President López Obrador (AMLO). Since taking power in 2018, he has constructed with the acceptance of his supporters, a propagandist discourse within the frame of populist communication focused on 1) the distorted homogeneity of a virtuous and pure people, 2) the negative, simplified and generalized attitude towards a corrupt elite, and 3) a binary view of the world in which a good group is facing another labeled as corrupt and vile (cf. Fawzi 2019, p. 149).

In addition, a radical break-away of AMLO’s administration from the codes and forms of political communication replicated for decades can be observed. It is not only about the populist narrative but also about the assertive prominence taken on by the president. This prominence is something that has allowed him to concentrate on his persona, through the institutionalization of a daily morning press conference, the image and message of his administration. By February 2022 AMLO had given 780 press conferences while his antecesor, Enrique Peña Nieto (2012–2018) gave only 3. Even the most media savvy president Vicente Fox (2000–2006) gave a total of 40 (Estrada 2022). AMLO has thus consolidated a strategy of polarization based on dumping on the news agenda pseudo or openly false information on a daily basis (Estrada 2021), the disqualification and ridicule of his critics and, of even more concern, personal attacks on journalists, academics, and social activists critical of his government in a country with one of the highest rates in the world or assassinations of journalists (Article XIX 2021: 127–128).

5.1 Socio-political and media context

It is to be expected that governments seek to influence public opinion in order to win at the ballot boxes. Proof of this is the enormous economic and communication outlay that we have observed in the media ecosystem since the democratic transition in 2000. In the fourth era, this influence has become difficult to place on a single place, by a single player or at a single rhythm. Multiple longitudinal analyses in the study of political communication adopt an evolutionist perspective, i.e., they depart from the idea that the players, channels and themes that constitute the communication process are continually adapting to a dynamic social, cultural, political and media context. For the case of the characterization of this era, said perspective can lead to an analytical paradox, since we believe that the new digital context has pushed the players, channels and themes not towards an adaptation, but instead to a forced assimilation of old political formulas in new clothes (i.e. authoritarian presidentialism, vanishing checks and balances from the legislative and judicial branch, direct verbal and budgetary attacks on autonomous state institutions, discrediting of social movements and “aspirational” middle classes).

Structurally speaking, in Mexico we have seen how the third era in which the concentration of communication power revolving around the national radio, television and press owners has moved into a fourth era in which the prevailing phenomenon is one of a spontaneous, vertiginous fragmentation of new digital communication channels relying on disinformation and militant journalism.

According to Blumler (2016) and Bennett and Pfetsch (2018), some characteristics of Western contemporary political communication are abundance of communication, post-modernity, the incipient role of the public service media, the disappearance of media gatekeeping and a fragmentation of audiences fostering the incapacity of communication through the differences (cf. Waisbord 2005).

In addition to that we offer four trends that might help explain the prevalence and assimilation of old political forms and symbols amid an atomized public conversation.

  1. 1.

    Institutional post-truth and plannified distraction

Following Benkler et al. (2018), the main effect of digital propaganda would currently seem to be corroborated in the Mexican case through induction, from the presidency of the Republic, of a distraction and inadvertence from underlying issues. The authors of this paper have witnessed in the voice of the president the legitimization of an official discourse based on mistaken perceptions of reality and false information. Disorientation has been favoured amid the abundance of informative stimuli and the inability (unwillingness?) of the mass media to distinguish between the important and the banal.

López Obrador’s administration has sought to take advantage of the radicalized anti-establishment stance to reproduce a populist narrative based on the smeared reputation of the old political parties, mainstream media and high-profile journalists (cf. Sieff 2022, paragraph 2–3). Evidence shows a propaganda network replicated throughout the day by several digital amplification accounts in social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube channels focused on legitimizing infotrash or promoting AMLO’s administration (see Piña-García and Espinoza 2022 for a detailed account of pro-government astroturfing during the COVID-19 pandemic). Spaces that, without being subject to journalistic rigor, have found an innovative way to profit from disinformation, news scandals and strident distortion (cf. Juárez and Celecia 2021). This has struck an important chord among population segments systematically isolated from following the news and that are particularly prone to consuming digital disinformation distributed for free packaged with an hyperbolic selling point.

  1. 2.

    Asymmetric consumer logic and infotainment

This asymmetry assumes a significant change in news consumption patters in which citizens are less inclined to pay for high quality journalism -particularly in low-income markets-, increasing the gap between media outlets and citizens while at the same time they are more inclined to subscribe to entertainment platforms now abundant in a digital marketplace. Mexican consumers are willing to sacrifice other forms of entertainment (i.e. going to the movies, holidaying, shopping, eating out) in order to secure access to a growing offer of digital content hubs. The trend is similar to other regions around the world, however, this is happening in a context in which news consumption has sharply declined, at least in the particular case of paid-for media outlets like newspapers, magazines and digital paywall portals. It might not be the case of citizens no longer interested in following current affairs but instead that the growing access to social media and digital free-for-all content providers (i.e. civic journalism/guy-next-door editorialist on platforms like YouTube, Instagram, Facebook/WhatsApp, Vimeo, Twitter, etc.) are displacing legacy media as a source of political information (cf. Salzman 2015, pp. 85–86; Perez-Linan 2002, pp. 583–585).

This has raised concerns about the quality of information citizens get access to and the lack of professionalism and ethical code most alternative information channels offer to the public. This is combined with a weakened role of public service media in Latin America that used to adopt the “fill the gap” paradigm in which PSM became the nutritious ingredient of our cultural diet dominated by the fast-food pop culture diet dictating media production in all major communication markets (accentuated by the growing dominance of streaiming services like Netflix, AppleTV, Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO, Disney Channel, etc.). With low budgets and limited autonomy from governmental policies, public service media and with it the very ethos of communication as a public service process is contributing to a growing financial gap between citizens and quality news. This could contribute to a decline of journalism and more opportunities for demagogues and polarizing narratives.

  1. 3.

    Journalism under systemic violence

Following our earlier point on Mexico as a B-side of political communication studies, violence is the main variable separating Mexico from other western democracies. According to Article XIX (2021) there have been 33 jounalists killed during AMLO’s administration. Only in the first quarter of 2022, 8 journalists have been killed across the country. Together with precarious working conditions and news media digital crossroads, the exercise of journalism in Mexico is in great danger. It is impossible to ignore its impact on political communication processes. Candidates, elected officials and journalists have all been the target of criminal gangs and corrupted police authorities particularly at a sub-national levels (cf. Brambila 2017; Salazar 2019). How is this intense and ever-present level of violence against journalism, citizens and democratic institutions shaping dysfunctional media systems? What would the impact on the production of local and national news be in an environment in which criminal gangs control not only physical territories but also the narrative and symbolism of daily life? Although violence against journalists and criminal violence are not new, the incremental factor and accumulative effect are expected to shape the cycle of political communication,

  1. 4.

    The imposition of moral convictions over the rule of law

Currently in Mexico, there is a change of digital paradigm in a new post-modern sphere, in which traditional values of rationalism, objectivity and professionalization of the media have been relegated to a second level. In this fourth era, there has been a swerve of the modernist notions that placed the Internet as a technological tool at the service of democracy. The so-called hybrid media system characteristic of other democracies (cf. Chadwick 2013) appears as a mechanism to exploit prejudices and beliefs aimed at manipulating, confusing and distracting public opinion. The prevalence of episodic over thematic frames promoted by the government is illustrative. We have seen a shift from political power trying to control the public conversation by fostering corporativistic practices to an strategy that prioritizes scandal and confrontation in order to avoid addressing problems, issues and proposals for an immediate future.

The characteristics that define this fourth era adopt not only the digitalization or the risks of disinformation familiar to many Western democracies. We have observed an instrumental appropriation of individual beliefs and misconceptions of how the government works in order to strenghten citizens’ cognitive biases. A change that can well be defined from the perspective of post-modernity, in which many of modern values and premises (i.e., objectivity, scientific truth, rationalism, informative deliberation) have been subjected to context of planned disinformation (cf. Schulz 2014, p. 74), militant journalism and propaganda networks focused on sacrificing accuracy and deliberation in order to satisfy cognitive biases fed by junk information. This has led to a gradual substitution of investigative journalism for episodic and personalized stories more attractive to less informed audiences, although more polarized than before (cf. Sierra and Solá-Morales 2020, p. 4).

6 Conclusions

In our critical review of the contemporary history of political communication in Mexico, we have identified four extensive eras which, based on socio-historic, political and economic considerations, help to explain the changes and continuities that we believe are relevant when discussing the current state of political communication. From this heuristic approach, we can find some constants that offer a consistency in the media-networks-power-citizenry relationship that can be used as a type of navigation map to trace the points of inflection in the immediate future of political communication.

By way of conclusion, in this socio-historic review, we can observe three transversal axes that traverse the four eras described in this paper. First, the permanency of a discretionary regulatory framework focused on delimiting freedom of expression to electoral matters and inhibiting competition in the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector. Second, the reproduction of asymmetrical socioeconomic structures in the communications market, in which business models differentiated by region prevail and are notably predominant in conurbations where the production of cultural content and products are concentrated on Mexico (i.e., Mexico City, Monterrey and Guadalajara). Third, the fact that both the Federal Government and the state governments have historically distorted the supply and demand of information, not only as advertisers, but also as censors and persecutors of critical journalism. Thus, we perceive three levels of governmental constrain of free expression at both national and sub-national (state) levels. 1) As advertiser in exchange of compliance, 2) as denouncer and disqualifier of critical journalism, and 3) as protagonist, through act or omission, of the current crisis of violence to which Mexican journalists have been experiencing in recent decades.

Lastly, we assume that the fourth era of political communication in Mexico is occurring within a context of rupture, a type of entropy where the media ecosystem has been irreversibly reconfigured and is no longer able to return to its previous state. This has generated a high degree of uncertainty in the communication processes and has been used for the advantage of the centers of power, mainly political, but also economic.