The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism

Living Edition
| Editors: Immanuel Ness, Zak Cope

Media Imperialism

  • Oliver Boyd-BarrettEmail author
Living reference work entry


In introducing his book Media Imperialism, Boyd-Barrett (2015) argued that it is more productive to regard the concept as referring to a field of study rather than to a single theory. Many different theories could be credited with advancing our knowledge of the broad range of possible issues, topics, and relationships that integrate an interest in phenomena that are widely recognized as having to do with empire, with an interest in phenomena that are widely recognized as having to do with media. A great deal of scholarship that contributes to understanding of such relationships does not expressly adopt the term “media imperialism.”

Scholars have long debated the relationship between the concepts “media” and human “culture.” Some have conflated these two terms as though they were interchangeable. The prevalent view today is that media are an important element of culture but constitute only a fraction of the universe of manifestations of culture even if, at the same time, much of this broader universe is represented, mediated, or socially constructed through media.

Scholarship that expressly adopts the terminology of media imperialism (and much of the relevant scholarship that does not) tends to be interested in some or more of the following questions:
  1. 1.

    Do the information, entertainment, infotainment, and advertising contents of given media work to reinforce, resist, or modify relationships of inequality in power and wealth between and sometimes even within nations?

  2. 2.

    Do media operate autonomously in the determination of such contents or do they collude with centers of political, military, commercial, or other power in this process, to the extent that they might be rightly regarded as constituting components of the apparatus of imperial control?

  3. 3.

    Do media corporations sometimes acquire such degrees of market control domestically, internationally, or in certain sectors of media activity that they can be meaningfully described as media imperialists whose activities significantly shape, constrain, or otherwise shape the activities of smaller media corporations?

  4. 4.

    Is there a point at which the global networks of electronic communications that are built and sustained by media corporations – understood to incorporate both hardware and software, infrastructure, delivery, and reception platforms – become so fundamental to the day-to-day conduct of big business, global trade, and information and entertainment flows that it is meaningful to talk of media imperialism as a distinct phase in the evolution of the global order?


Cultural and Media Imperialism

The terms cultural imperialism and media imperialism date from the same period and have similar roots. They interrelate theoretically and pragmatically. Relationships between processes understood as “culture” and processes understood as “imperialism” (however these are defined) often implicate one or more of the technologies and modes of communication that are denoted by the term “media.” Media are constitutive of and constituted by the cultures from which they emerge.

The domain of culture is generally recognized as more pervasive and constitutive of social structure and process than that of media. Some scholarship broaches the subject of cultural imperialism from a broad perspective that may or may not embrace the media directly but which includes a wealth of other dimensions many of which continue to be relevant to studies of media. These include language, approaches to knowledge and knowing, belief systems, ideologies, cultures of governance, education, economic activity, social structure, interpersonal relationship, technologies, and artifacts. Appadurai’s (1996) postulation of five “scapes” for the analysis of culture and globalization – ethnoscape, technoscape, finanscape, mediascape, and ideoscape – is an influential example. Bayly’s (2000) examination of the relationship between colonialism, information-gathering, and social communication in India is another. Boyd-Barrett (1977, 2015) explicitly favored the term media imperialism, even though recognizing it as narrower than and encompassed by cultural imperialism, for its benefit of a focused discourse helpful in the specific context of unpacking the complexity of media operations. He located the study of the relationships between media and imperialism at least as much within the realm of the subdiscipline of political economy as that of cultural studies.

While the terms share some common roots and are sometimes used interchangeably, they also have distinctive histories. In the sociology of mass media, for example, the significance of the term media imperialism in the 1960s and 1970s was based on large measure on its contrast to the “modernization paradigm” that had prevailed in an immediately preceding literature and which framed academic analysis of the contributions of media to processes of social and economic development. Modernization theories postulated an essential, benign role for media in “national development,” whereas media imperialism theorists regarded media infrastructure, institutions, and content as part and parcel of western hegemony, working to groom peoples of the South or developing world for willing acceptance of, or consent to, their continued exploitation regardless of whether or not they were politically “autonomous.” A broader understanding of the relationship between media and imperialism, however, is not confined to concerns about social and economic development, but may also embrace links between social systems, their distinctive communication processes, and preferred epistemologies.

An often cited exemplary text from earlier literatures that deals with the relationship between communication and empires (as distinct from more recent ideas of cultural or media imperialism) is that of the Canadian economist and communications scholar Innis (1950, 1951) who identified what he proposed were distinctive relationships between the physical properties of communication systems (e.g., stone, papyrus, or paper) and the structure and capabilities of power in ancient civilizations. The work of Innis had a direct influence on fellow Canadian and a scholar of literature and culture, Marshall McLuhan, who developed Innis’ ideas about the relationship between prevailing modes of communication and evolving stages of social organization (see, in particular, McLuhan 1962, 1964, 1967). The works of Innis and McLuhan were contributions to a large and ever-evolving literature on causal and other modes of relationship between writing (manuscripts), printing (newspapers, books), electronic and wireless media (telephone, radio, television), and digital and social media, on the one hand, and society in general or particular aspects of society (such as childhood and, of course, imperialism), on the other.

Extrapolating from Boyd-Barrett (2015), it is important to be sensitive to the historical constancy of interrelationships between imperialism, culture, and media, as well as to the ever-evolving manifestation of each of these. Imperialism, he argues, is always about the exploitation of one community by another, but this can take many forms. Direct control over territory is dispensable. Cultures change upon contact, sometimes evolving hybrid forms whose constituents are unequal. Media evolve most visibly in technological form but also through their relationships to different centers of power, ownership, control, geographical and demographic reach, accessibility, genre, purpose, symbolic constituents, and audiences. Across all of these dimensions, there is the play of power and issues of inequality of power.

A clear distinction needs to be made between actual phenomena of cultural and media imperialism, on the one hand, likely commensurate with humanity itself, and studies that fall under the rubric of “cultural/media imperialism” on the other and which we can date back to the 1960s. The currents of thought that emerged around this time and which intensified through the 1970s can be criticized overall for being insufficiently historical, lacking the nuance of a social anthropology of culture, overly focused on the particular case of the USA, and media-centric. But they are also a product of growing awareness in developing countries (or countries of the “Third World” – sometimes referred to later as “the South,” “developing,” “postcolonial” societies or “emergent” economies) that the achievement of nominal, political independence from the principal imperial powers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (especially Belgium, Britain, France, Netherlands, Japan, Portugal, Russia, Spain, and the USA) in the period after World War II was illusory. The “former” imperial nations, singly or in alliance, continued to shape, mold, or control the destinies of “former” colonies and acolytes through military threat, economic ties, intelligence subterfuge, and the continuing reverberations of a not-so-distant imperial culture through ties of language, epistemology (determination of what should count as knowledge), esteemed art and literature, political procedure, and so on.

Korean and Vietnamese wars from the 1940s through to the 1970s exemplified threats of imperial invasion and occupation well after the World War II. Ruthless imperial suppression (gentrified or obscured by mainstream media) of indigenous insurgencies in possessions such as Algeria, Kenya, and Malaysia exposed the deep-seated unwillingness of empires to relinquish their most prized conquests. Civil wars in the wake of independence, as in the Indian subcontinent, Congo, or Nigeria, challenged the vaunted benefits of “freedom.” Western-instigated or western-supported destabilization and regime change in countries such as Guatemala (1952), Iran (1953), Congo (1961), Indonesia (1965), Greece (1967), and Chile (1973), to name a few, instructed new nations of the “South” that when “independent” nations chose paths of development (nationalization, industrialization, diversification, import substitution, socialism, and secularism) of which their “former” imperial masters disapproved, they would be subject to brutal subversion and worse. Such punitive impacts typically endured for decades. Throughout, media were increasingly indispensable weapons amidst information and propaganda wars between hegemonic power and resistance to it.

Formulation of theories of cultural and media imperialism is particularly associated with a cluster of Latin American scholars of communication in the 1960s and 1970s. They included the Bolivian journalist and communication scholar Luis Ramiro Beltran (see, e.g., Beltran 1980), the sociologist Armand Mattelart (born in Belgium, but whose career spanned a decade in Chile during which he coauthored a significant 1975 study with Ariel Dorfman), and the Venezuelan scholar of social communication, Antonio Pasquali (see his foundational 1963/1977 publication). Many North American, European, and other scholars embraced the term. With particular relevance for the foundation of cultural studies, the writings of Stuart Hall (Jamaican-British) have had incomparable influence. One of Hall’s works, coauthored with Paddy Whannel in 1964, made the case for the serious study of film as entertainment. Relevant studies included the writings of Herbert Schiller (American; see, e.g., his foundational 1969 work), of whom I shall say more in a moment; Jeremy Tunstall (British; whose classic 1977 work delineated US primacy in media production and distribution worldwide); and Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s 1988 exposition of a “propaganda model” of disinformation in which mainstream media were central players and which served to obfuscate the dynamics of (particularly US) imperialism. The propaganda model’s first and principal target was the empire’s domestic citizenry and then, courtesy of the broad influence of US media infrastructure and journalism worldwide, a global audience.

Tomlinson (1991) considered that the notion of “cultural imperialism” was too broad to yield an easy or single definition that was not controversial, proposing instead that a definition “must be assembled out of its discourse” (p. 3). A definition offered by Schiller touches on many but not all dimensions common to studies of cultural imperialism and which inform Schiller’s own approach to media, namely, “the sum of the processes by which a society is brought into the modern world system and how its dominating stratum is attracted, pressured, forced and sometimes bribed into shaping social institutions to correspond to, or even promote, the values and structures of the dominating center of the system” which Schiller identified as the US (Schiller 1976, p. 9). This definition is consistent with world systems theory (Wallerstein 1981) and highlights modernity, agency, and inequalities of power and class structure. More controversially, it presumes that the term is appropriate only for the “modern” age, deems that the USA is indisputably the system’s dominating center, and concentrates its critical energy on advanced capitalism.

Examining processes of cultural imperialism from the top down, Schiller’s consideration of media reception at the levels of community and household was relatively primitive. At the macro-level, his model compellingly demonstrated systemic interplay of the major components of an imperial system as it operated for much of the second half of the twentieth century: (1) advanced US-based privately owned and for-profit media industries; (2) principally financed by advertising; that (3) promoted consumerism, a cornerstone of US economic strength; (4) while adapting new communications technologies (e.g., satellite, later the Internet) initially developed by state-sponsored military and defense industries that also served goals of military and surveillance primacy; (5) simultaneously facilitating the global dissemination of US media, US-based multinational enterprise, and the US goods promoted through global advertising, all the while subject to (6) a national regulatory system and a US-directed global regulatory system that privileged the private, commercial media model and served US hegemony.

The term “media imperialism,” emerging from this scholarship, figured as one component of a broader intellectual framework of “dependency theory” – a critical backlash not just against the “modernization paradigm” that had prevailed in developmental studies but more broadly against the democratic-pluralist model of thinking about media and society in general. The three basic presumptions at work behind the modernization paradigm were that (1) western societies were democratic and pluralistic (i.e., home to diverse sources of power in stable tension through their participation in democratic institutions) and enjoyed media “freedom” and their economies were advanced (all these seen to be interdependent, positive attributes); (2) other parts of the world would benefit if they adopted this model; and (3) because the main components of the model were interdependent, the introduction of one component into a developing society (e.g., “free” media or even just “media”) would facilitate the appearance of the others. As the prevailing ideology of its time, one that informed the broad field of media scholarship up until the late 1960s and throughout much of 1970s, democratic pluralism and its corollary of the modernization paradigm contributed to Cold War discourses fashioned through direct and indirect manipulation of knowledge production by political and intelligence actors. Several of the field’s leading scholars had worked for US intelligence in one sense or another during World War II, and their ties to the intelligence establishment often persisted (Mody and Lee 2003). Additionally, the objects of their inquiries – news and entertainment media – were themselves infiltrated and exploited by political and intelligence actors to a degree that was not acknowledged in media scholarship of the period, as in Operation Mockingbird. The findings of at least three congressional committees of inquiry into CIA operations during the 1970s are of great importance (Church Committee Reports 1975–1976; Pike Committee 1976; Rockefeller Commission 1975), exposing CIA buy-out of large numbers of both journalists and academics (Boyd-Barrett 2004). The history of the Congress for Cultural Freedom reveals the extraordinary lengths to which the CIA went in order to shape an intellectual environment that was favorable to the interests of the USA and its allies (Whitney 2016). In recent decades, much more evidence has come to light of routine manipulation of movie and television programming by US defense and intelligence establishments (to be discussed further below).

Dependency theory was influenced by the writings of the Argentine economist Prebisch (1962), the German American economist and sociologist Frank (1979), and the American sociologist Wallerstein (1984). Its major points of consensus were that (1) economic growth in wealthy countries did not necessarily lift the economies of poor countries; (2) this negative outcome was a result of systematic political, economic, and cultural ties between countries whose operation favored the rich and disadvantaged the poor; and (3) relations between them (variously described as dominant/dependent, central/peripheral, or metropolitan/satellite) reinforced and intensified inequality. Frank ascribed this dynamic to capitalism specifically, others more generally to power imbalance.

With respect to media scholarship, dependency theory undermined the argument of “modernization” theorists that aid for media in the “developing world” would, of itself, contribute to development. It suggested that the interests actually served by the growth of media in the dependent countries were (1) countries whose media systems were already strongest and engaged in exports of hardware and software; (2) the western-based media owners and suppliers who would most immediately benefit from international expansion of their operations, together with (3) corporations (western-based multinational corporations foremost among them) whose sales were linked to advertising expenditure in media, as well as (4) corporations who built the infrastructures for global communication (cable, wireless, satellite, etc.) as well as the technologies of media production, distribution and reception. All these interests subscribed to a general ideology of power, economic development, and growth (later referred to more generally as “neoliberalism”) that stood to benefit from its broader dissemination and exemplification (the so-called demonstration effect) through media worldwide.

Dependency theory called attention to the role of media in facilitating and sustaining forms of imperialism. It demolished the idea that simple concession of “independence” by postimperial to postcolonial countries was an especially meaningful sign of autonomy or an end to actual imperialism. The relevance of dependency theory to media was exemplified within media studies by research that demonstrated the dominance of western and in particular US communications technologies corporations (in telecommunications, satellite, and computing) and content providers (notably in film, television, news agencies, and publishing) on global markets.

Dependency discourses were consistent with several other contemporary intellectual trends:
  1. 1.

    The growing influence of “political economy” approaches to media which acknowledged that how media operated, the contents and services that they provided, were significantly shaped by their underlying business models (of which advertising dependence was the most important), the particular markets they served, their strategies for gaining market advantage, and by the implicit and explicit understandings and relationships between major media and the other major centers of power, above all the power of state agencies – including agencies whose function was to regulate the media either for the benefit of a presumed “public interest” or increasingly for the benefit of corporations. The rise of a political economy view of the media drew from similar currents of thought as those of dependency theory, alongside other sources of inspiration.

  2. 2.

    Revitalization of interest in the critical, dialectical approach of the Frankfurt School, especially as represented by Horkheimer and Adorno (2007) and Marcuse (1970), and its fusion of Marxism and psychoanalysis.

  3. 3.

    Development of Marxist or post-Marxist analysis of the prospects for European social democracy of the struggle for influence between publicly and privately owned media systems and the implications of processes of media concentration, conglomeration, and commercialization for culture and politics, during a period of relative detente in the 1970s when potential convergence between the systems of western social democracy and Russo-Chinese communism seemed less unthinkable than it soon became.

  4. 4.

    Discourses of the New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) within the context of a series of conferences organized by the United Nations Education Science and Culture Organization (UNESCO), also involving the Non-Aligned Movement, and which culminated in the 1980 publication of UNESCO’s Many Voices, One World report of a committee chaired by Sean McBride. The concept of NWICO provided UN endorsement for the view that resolving economic inequalities was not simply an economic but also a cultural challenge. While eschewing talk of imperialism, the language of the report was suffused with premises and concerns recognizable as emerging from ideas of dependency and application of the concept to communication inequalities between nations, the origination of these from within political, economic, and cultural realms, and the identification of appropriate reforms of institutional structures and processes that were both external and internal to nation states.


The Fall and Rise of a Concept

The later demise of dependency theory and, with it, ideas of media imperialism has many roots. I shall identify some of the main ones and then explain why the loss of the critical edge that these ideas represented also gravely weakened the intellectual capacity of media scholarship to critique the ever more egregious evidence of resurgent western imperialistic intent from 1990 onward, and the collusion of mainstream media with imperial power, both within the imperial center(s) and their dependencies.

There were some valid objections to dependency and media imperialism theories (both had several variants). I shall concentrate on those that relate to media. These theories awarded primacy of concern to economic inequalities which they proposed should be remedied at least in part by a strengthening of local media systems – an “import substitution” strategy. However many smaller countries did not have a sufficiently large internal population or a market for media systems that could compete economically against cheap imports of higher production quality even at the expense of diminished cultural relevance. Even when like-minded nations pooled resources in order to create more robust productions, as did the nations of the Non-Aligned Movement when they formed the Non-Aligned News Agency, the resulting market still did not compare – remotely – with the advertising-abundant and media-affluent markets served by leading western news agencies, nor was the news product of sufficient appeal to those wealthier markets. Smaller, less wealthy countries turned to their respective government or state agencies for investment in media and media regulation, sometimes inviting unproductive tensions between creative energy, business entrepreneurship, and political or bureaucratic constraints, in the realm of entertainment media, while opening the door to greater political control over news and information products. State involvement invited the ire of western critics who were generally blind to the limitations and informal but profound de facto censorship exercised by advertising-supported, commercially driven, privately owned media in their own countries.

The dependency notion of “underdevelopment” postulated a vicious spiral of inequality between nations of the center and nations of the periphery. This did not always turn out to be the case in practice, and definitions of “development,” once they extend beyond simple statistical aggregates such as gross national product and embrace less tangible, more experiential standards of what constitutes the “good life,” became controversial. Applied to media, the term worked unevenly, at best. The past half a century had seen significant media development in many if not most countries of the world, including the quondam “developing economies” – the largest of these, such as Brazil, sporting media conglomerates (e.g., the Globo empire) that rivalled and perhaps surpassed most of those of the USA, while even small countries had taken advantage of falling costs of media production and distribution to invest more in local media production. Yet the “media were American” thesis (Tunstall 2007) attributed insufficient attention to the near universal neoliberalization of advertising-supported, hyper-commercial infotainment media as an exported western and capitalist ideology and offered insufficient justice to the new digital world of multimedia Internet service providers, portals, and websites, which is dominated by a small number of countries, the US preeminent among them. At the time of writing, the USA remains the world’s single largest center of media power and wealth when all media domains are included: legacy and digital, hardware and software, across publishing, film, telecommunications, computing, and industries (Boyd-Barrett 2015).

Dependency theory prioritized the nation as the major unit of analysis in the study of processes that extended beyond national frontiers. Primacy of the nation state came under increasing fire with the popularization of globalization theory from the 1970s into the 1990s and beyond. Perspectives of globalization theory encouraged analysis of the interlinkages between global, regional, national, intranational, and local levels, without necessarily privileging any one of these, and acknowledged how phenomena at any one of these levels could only be explained with reference to other levels. Oftentimes the nation state seemed to disappear as a significant entity even though in practice national states retained important regulatory and legislative influence over media and communications industries and even though most relevant international regulatory bodies were in fact governed by the legal representatives of nation states. De-prioritization of the nation state inspired scholars to consider the role of media not so much with reference to representations of nationhood and national institutions (or, for that matter, of other expressions of place) but to how media constituted the imaginaries of any of these and those of whose interests they served. Globalization added fuel to critical scholarship of self-acclaimed “global media” – that usually turned out, on close inspection, to represent interests associated with particular nations or alliances of elite national interests – and of the corporations that built the technologies and assembled the infrastructures required by market demand for international or global communication facilities.

The demise of the Soviet Union and the East European countries of the former communist bloc, from 1989 onward, brought about the balkanization of a vast swathe of EurAsia whose previous national identities – while never entirely eclipsed during their history as components of the USSR and its Yalta-endorsed zone of influence – were elevated into autonomous status through the lenses of media worldwide even though some retained close links with the Russian Federation and others were coopted by or fled into the fold of the European Union and/or NATO. Equally important was the “capitalist road” adopted under the continuing stewardship of the Chinese Communist Party by Chinese leadership under Chairman Deng Xiaoping, following the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, reaching apparent fruition in 2000 under Jiang Zemin when China was accepted as a member of the World Trade Organization.

Up until these events, western media scholarship had focused much of its critical gaze upon the media of the western world and the worldwide influence of (mainly) western media conglomerates. Japan was a “proxy” western partner, an acknowledged leader in many domains including animation and anime and, thanks largely to Sony, consumer electronics, not least in the form of Sony Walkman (until the arrival of Internet music sharing – Napster ran from 1999 to 2001 – and the appearance of the first version of the Apple iPod in 2001) and, later, the Sony PlayStation. Although open to Marxist and post-Marxist trends of thought, scholarship had shown little enthusiasm for and not much interest in the communist model of media production and control which were loosely dismissed as over-bureaucratized systems of state capital. The main media issue thought to be of interest, apart from the unsubtle theme of state censorship and control, was the adaptation of low-technology forms of anti-Communist resistance (Samizdat in Eastern Europe, e.g., or post-Maoist wall posters in China).

The influence of dependency theory had peaked around 1980 with publication of the McBride report. The report’s recommendations expressed considerable trust in the regulatory power and responsibility of governments to act in the best interests of the community of nations. That faith was undermined by the Thatcher administration in the UK that took power in 1979 and by the Reagan administration that came to office in the USA in 1981. These administrations adopted the monetarist economics of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics. They had no interest in subordinating their policies to UN bodies in which the influence of the “South” or dependent economies was becoming stronger in the wake of postcolonialism, with the numerical advantage brought by the emergence of many new nations. The USA announced its intention to withdraw from UNESCO in 1983, followed by Britain. This was the era during which the West steadily withdraws from goals of détente with Russia. They adopted globalization policies of “free” trade and free flows of investment that principally favored the already wealthy countries. And they began stalling or reversing policies of social democracy that had funneled aid to the distressed through welfare programs, sickness and unemployment benefits, health care, and the like. They considered that their revisionist policies were endorsed by the collapse of the communist countries of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and by China’s capitalist road.

For Marxist-inclined media scholars, these developments further undermined their already dwindling confidence that Marxism was still relevant to the modern world and deprived them of even the hope that they might establish academic careers on such a basis. They were also under fire from postmodernist cultural studies which hammered irreverently at the foundations of all such “grand narrative” or mega systems of politics and philosophy. The reformist concept of “public sphere” that had emerged in the wake of the discovery and translation after several decades of the works of the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas provided a substitute language appropriate for media criticism, to a point, yet did relatively little to inspire vigorous appraisal of the rot of corrupt or partisan practices of corporations such as News International that had undermined democracy in Britain for several decades and which supported extreme right-wing interests in the USA. Media scholarship was confused by the apparent contradictions between continuing “legacy” problems of market concentration, corporate conglomeration, and so forth, on the one hand, and the urge to celebrate an overhyped abundance and pluralism of the brave new era of digital media.

By the early 1990s, the principal preoccupations of the field had largely bypassed Marx. The foci of attention were the continuing development of the study of “media effects” (including agenda-setting and uses and gratifications theories, refinements of the concept of “active viewer”) and the role of media as constitutive or representative of popular culture. These studies were embedded in theories originating in cultural studies of the polysemic text and in social anthropology of the “interpretative reader” (not autonomous exactly but whose understanding of a text was refracted through the interpretive communities of which s/he was a member) as well as in positivist social psychology study of viewing and reception (see Boyd-Barrett 1996 for a brief overview of this field).

These greatly complicated the already considerable challenge to media scholarship of proving “effects” in the presence of large numbers of intervening variables. The influence of the active/autonomous reader approach to media reception would be modified somewhat by growing influence throughout the 1990s and beyond both of “framing” and “indexing” theories and theories of propaganda and persuasion. These provided a much more sophisticated understanding – in a field whose previous grasp of the techniques for study of media content and of how content “works” were shockingly rudimentary – of the wide variety of ways in which texts are routinely modified to privilege certain meanings, foregrounding particular events, people, information, citations, arguments and allusions, and the backgrounding or “disappearing” of others. They showed how such influence could be compounded by the creation and exploitation of “echo chambers,” as when propagandists are successful in delivering the same message without significant challenge through multiple media outlets simultaneously. Where existing audience knowledge of a given topic and their motivations to acquire new knowledge were low, and where journalistic dependence on a limited range of “authoritative” sources was high – all of which frequently applied in the case in foreign affairs reporting, for example – then the scope for effective disinformation or propaganda was maximized.

Postmodernism and ideas of the autonomous reader synchronized well with a shift in thinking about media and development away from top-down models represented both by the original “modernization paradigm” (which, though falling out of favor in academe continued to be quite popular in the policy field) and its nemesis, dependency theory. These both attributed to the state a primacy of responsibility for determining what “development” should mean and how it should be implemented and resourced. Top-down approaches relied heavily on the inputs of external, approved “change agents” whose activities and recommendations presumed that innovation in itself was an unquestionably “good thing.” They were often tied to NGO or corporate funding whose agendas were extraneous to those of the communities they ostensibly served. The products and processes they delivered were not always a good fit with conditions and needs on the ground.

Seemingly more democratic, bottom-up models (as identified among others by Melkote and Steeves 2015, and Jan Servaes) regarded “development” as something that communities at ground level should determine for themselves, perhaps with the technocratic input and resources of sympathetic nongovernment organizations. Ideologically attractive to western progressive intellectuals, this approach was hopelessly idealistic in those parts of the world (i.e., most) where initiatives at local level were considerably impacted by local, regional, and national political and other state and non-state agencies, vulnerable to the play of market forces and subject to distinctly unmodern patriarchal and often racist local elites. Bottom-up models of development have still to satisfactorily integrate with the single largest developmental push experienced since the industrial revolution, namely, the industrialization of communist China and neoliberal India in the 1990s and 2000s. This has resulted from multiple, complex forces operating from global to local levels with the support of the state and has elevated hundreds of millions from subsistence levels to something that more closely resembles “middle-class” status, albeit at the expense of massive environmental degradation.

Development theory has engaged in a fruitless quest to catch up with and provide meaningful input within the context of tectonic political, economic, and cultural shifts – veritable Schumpeterian “gales of creative destruction.” These resulted from the collapse of traditional communism, the gathering speed of global economic integration (or globalization), and the increasingly universal application of digital technologies. Starting in the developed world, digital technologies have decimated the print newspaper industry. The recording industry has largely shifted online under the policing of Apple and comparable digital gatekeepers. Theatrical exhibition and DVDs for filmed entertainment and the “network model” of traditional broadcasting are in the process of conceding to electronic streaming. Traditional advertising and marketing conglomerates are threatened by the capacity of electronic platforms and social media to connect advertisers directly to consumers without middlemen (Auletta 2018).

Marxism provided an intellectual backcloth for continuing, critical analysis of media industries. But more than a strain of media, political economy had inched its way toward a less radical, industry-friendly study of media economics. The mass popularity of personal computing in the 1980s and of the Internet in the 1990s promised an infinite potential for mediated communications that would be easily available in the home and the office and, later, with the marriage of telecommunications, computing, and the Internet, in the street and air. For a while, the appearance of infinite communications capacity removed the sting from older concerns about market concentration and conglomeration. The monopolies of national landline communication collapsed before a seeming horde of local and mobile telephony companies offering telephony, television, and Internet services. These variously linked individual households to the Internet, established “portals” for safe or organized access online, and facilitated interaction via advertising-supported search engines.

When the mist had cleared from the scrummage by the late 2000s, it became clear that new, bigger, further-reaching conglomerates had formed, often incorporating older versions, more powerful than anything seen before. There were fewer regulatory boundaries separating telephony from television or from the Internet, or hardware from software, or either hardware or software from delivery system. Attempts to preserve a “level playing field” in the shape of “network neutrality” for the benefit of ordinary users weakened before the bulldozers of telecommunications behemoths demanding the freedom to control whatever they chose to make available, and the speed or convenience at which they delivered it, and to favor their own products or those of their affiliates. Media scholarship was scarcely able to catch its breath let alone make sustained meaning from the rush of these developments.

The speed and pervasiveness of change in the media industries themselves increased pressure on scholarship toward ever more media-centric analysis. Efforts to scale both the complexities of media change and their related transformations in the broader, momentous upheavals of global politics, economics, and culture were generally underwhelming, often naive and senselessly trusting of mainstream media accounts. Examples included the excitement with which some scholars greeted media-originated narratives of the generally ill-fated 2010–2011 “Arab Spring” events as a “Twitter” revolution or, in 2017 accepted as a serious argument that through abuse of social media, the Russians had won the 2016 US presidential election for Donald Trump – an egregious example of a media-induced moral panic.

Review and Prospect

A striking feature of many attacks against the concept of media imperialism had been their irrelevance and inaccuracy. They universally assumed that the concept referred to a single theory whereas, as Boyd-Barrett had already observed in 1977, a far broader range of phenomena was at issue. They ignored the possibility that even if the concept did not speak usefully to their own time, it might have something of relevance to offer to an understanding of the workings of classic imperialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the role of communications in processes of imperial domination and resistance to it. In respect to their own time, critics frequently demonstrated surprising neglect of relevant historical evidence and an underestimation of the literature they were critiquing, as in the claim of “lack of evidence” (see Sparks 1991; Thussu 2006). The majority of the concept’s critics exhibited little if any insight at all into the historical experience of imperialism and its hundreds of millions of victims.

Schiller (1975) had provided copious evidence of the close interrelationships between US foreign policy, US military interventions, US communications technologies, US media and advertising, and US-supported consumerism and capitalism. Wilson, Herman and Schiller (1989) provided devastating witness to how US mainstream media celebrated those Third World regimes that were its allies (no matter how dictatorial or fragile they were in practice) and denounced those whom the US deemed its enemies (no matter how heroic and how popular they were in practice) but also showed how US media focused only on the incidentals of military gains and losses in their coverage of the extreme crime of the Vietnam War. Boyd-Barrett (1980) and Tunstall (1977) had shown how the media systems of many ex-colonial territories were established by and shaped and supported by western powers and western media giants and how the western-based international news agencies controlled the information flows around the world to the advantage of the powerful nations and to the disadvantage of newly developing nations.

Other empirical work on movies (Guback 1974) and broadcasting (Varis 1973) had provided strong support for the view that western media content dominated the non-communist nations of the developing world and how even within the developed world the media exports of a few dominated the contents of the many (even if this situation had in many but not in all respects transformed by the twenty-first century). The criticism that the media imperialism approach tended toward a magic bullet theory of media effects for the most part accuses the target literature of not embarking on a line of inquiry that was not then current in the field. Although audience-centered analysis has rightly exercised considerable influence in exploring the nuances between exposure to media and the takings of meanings and pleasures from media, the trajectory of agenda-setting study eventually paved the way to the concepts of framing and indexing, and these in turn have helped reintroduce the legitimacy of the notion of strong media effects, especially where campaigns put together by establishment propaganda apparatuses have secured hegemonic and homogeneous interpretations of events, in league with mainstream media, in support of the interests of major western powers. Major political developments in Washington meanwhile, through the course of at least three congressional hearings in the 1970s, exposed not just the immense corruption of literature, popular magazines, and newspapers resulting from the CIA’s so-called Congress of Cultural Freedom and its contribution to the development and normalization of Cold War mythologies but also how Operation Mockingbird bought the complicity of hundreds of US and foreign journalists, including noted editors and publishers, as well as academics, to fight the information Cold War. This corruption by the state apparatus of “independent journalism” has certainly continued and intensified over time, attested to by many sources.

More recent work, especially from 2000 onward, has reinstated the concept of media imperialism as central to media studies. This has worked in parallel with the growing, direct evidence of a resuscitation by the USA and NATO powers of activities that clearly resemble those of nineteenth century imperial machinations not so much against other great powers (though it has led to that) but, as always, against the weak. Scholarship was for long and in many ways is still rendered impotent, timorous, and orthodox in its reaction to the events of 9/11 despite clear indications of massive fraud perpetrated by the official accounts and supported by mainstream media (not least, but certainly not limited to the leading roles played by the Sunni Arab political and religious interests of Saudi Arabia). On the other hand, the illegal US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, on entirely manufactured pretext, rekindled memories of the deceptions of the First Gulf War (notable among them the propaganda tricks of the “incubator babies” fairytale and the myth of “precision weapons”), and the suspicious complexities of western support for the breakup of Yugoslavia have catalyzed a more critically minded scholarship. Even so, relatively few dared to openly investigate the lies and deceptions of western powers and complicit western media in coverage of the “Arab Spring,” particularly as this impacted Egypt, Iran, Libya, and Syria. In place of sophisticated, deep-context analysis, too many scholars jumped aboard a media-created, irrelevant narrative of Twitter and Facebook “liberation,” grievously failing to recognize in such shallow interpretations the telltale signs of western regime change operations that had already played out in clear daylight in Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, then in Washington’s promotion of Yeltsin to the Russian presidency and, later, through various territories of the former Soviet Union and communist world, notable among them Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Ukraine, and Georgia.

This desert of neglect and distraction notwithstanding, empirical scholarship has revealed a treasure trove of evidence clearly tying mainstream western media networks – directly representative and constitutive of corporate power – to the imperial ambitions of their respective states. Boyd-Barrett highlighted this in his 2015 book on media imperialism. This was dedicated to two themes: (1) the integral relationship between strong, globalized but predominantly US media apparatuses for capital accumulation and twenty-first-century manifestations of aggressive US and NATO imperialism in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Iran, while (2) confirming that despite the significant growth of a few non-western powerhouses, including China and India, global hardware and software markets continued to be dominated by US-based corporations such as Apple, Cisco, Dell, IBM, and Intel. US-based corporations remained exceptionally strong in computer software and Internet services (including Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Twitter), nurtured as many of these are by the concentration of talent and capital in the US Boyd-Barrett subsequently developed these themes further with reference to US and NATO intervention in Ukraine (Boyd-Barrett 2017) and the “fake news” wars between Washington and (Boyd-Barrett 2019).

Early in the twenty-first century, Toby Miller disclosed how Hollywood, supposedly the supreme manifestation of the partnership between capitalism, immense profit, and globally popular entertainment, depended for its influence on an array of federal and state subsidies. Alford (2010), Alford and Secker (2017), Boyd-Barrett et al. (2011), Jenkins (2016), Mirrlees (2013, 2016), Robb (2004), and Stahl (2010) have unpacked the voluminous ties that link the Pentagon, the CIA, and other state agencies of war to Hollywood’s (movies and television) choice of plots, dependence on state subsidy, wording of scripts, and favorable representations of the USA and of US military forces, targeting the industry’s most important, most susceptible and possibly most gullible audiences, the young. This influence process apparently does not stop at the assassination of uncooperative screenwriters (Alford 2016). Moody (2017) has chronicled what he describes as the integral role played by US State Department embassies in boosting and serving American media imperialism around the world and demonstrates a mutually beneficial relationship between the network of global US embassies and global Hollywood, arguing that this connection provides substantial evidence for a continuance of US media imperialism in the twenty-first century. Stahl refers to a long history of DOD supported war films – from Saving Private Ryan (1998) to Act of Valor (2012) – that reinforces what he calls the war-as-soldier-protection frame by depicting rescue operation after rescue operation. He suggests that officially sponsored “militainment” has come to penetrate reality TV, talk shows, sporting events, video games, documentary films, etc. This mirrors the imperial strategy of multiplying granular theaters of war through the world for the benefit of domestic public opinion while playing a vital role in maintaining American empire overseas. Dale Yong Jin has chronicled the rise of a US-centric platform imperialism, using the example of Facebook, the largest social media company in the world. He demonstrates that the USA’s global dominance is being helped by digital platforms, with Facebook the world’s leading platform imperialist. This perspective is increasingly reinforced by evidence of enhanced integration of leading electronic platform oligopolists and the US security establishment, and their eager participation in efforts to censor public speech in the name of a pseudo establishment war against “fake news,” too often information and opinion that is robustly critical of western foreign policy.


While never disappearing, despite triumphal assertions to the contrary from their opponents, media imperialism discourses fell out of favor for a period in the 1990s. They had always been a matter of controversy, particularly divisive within media studies between those on the right, inclined to trust the feigned humility of “former” imperial powers and their snake oil encouragement to postcolonial regimes to feel part of the big boys’ club, and those on the left, whose principal lesson from Marxism was to keep focused on the dialectical trajectories of history and the interests of capitalist classes. On the surface, the relative decline of media imperialism discourses appeared as an organic intellectual transition toward seductive but ultimately deceptive discourses of globalization – now better described as neoliberal hegemony and whose actual outcomes at the time of writing are ever more intense capitalist competition, unprecedented capital accumulation in fewer hands, extreme inequality, planetary destruction and war – and cultural globalization (whose similar sirens of seduction suggest colorful, joyful hybridity, and diversity in place of a reality of ever shallower infotainment pabulum at the service of consumerism and capital).

For a brief while, concepts of globalization and cultural globalization seemed to offer more promising explanatory power, friendlier to the corporate world, less aggressively provocative toward the state and state-subsidized intellectual production, and more congenial to academic careerism. They emerged against a backdrop of epochal political change, including the demise of the Soviet Union, that was particularly threatening to the left. Even as the illusions of globalization discourse became harder to disguise, intellectuals were ever ready with euphemisms to temper the worst. The term “soft power,” coined by an intimate of US intellectual hegemony, stood in to substitute for the reality of ever more violent assertions of imperial power detached from cultural niceties. In place of the sophistication of Wallestein’s center-periphery dependency models of distributed global power, simplistic “BRICS” discourses were forcibly nurtured with little or no heed to the absence of substantial shared interest between different members of the BRICS club, the close affiliations between some of their members and the USA and its allies, the absence of a unified BRICS media platform, and the reality, instead of a multicentered world, of an intensification of the threat of nuclear war between Sino-Russian axis on the one hand, and the US-NATO axis on the other.



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Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Bowling Green State UniversityBowling GreenUSA