What started as a tweeted “selfie” of President Enrique Pena Nieto with actor Kevin Spacey last week has devolved into a debate about politicians paying for positive coverage on social media.
In the photo (shown below), a relaxed Pena Nieto beams next to the grinning star of the Netflix television drama “House of Cards,” in which he plays Francis Underwood, a fictitious politician who moves into the White House.
“One of these Presidents is real. With President Enrique Pena Nieto in Mexico last night,” Spacey tweeted May 7 to his nearly 3.4 million followers.
Pena Nieto’s office later offered the photo to the news media, saying that the two had run into one another at a tourism expo in Cancun, the Caribbean resort city.
— Kevin Spacey (@KevinSpacey) May 7, 2014
But it wasn’t long until a blogger for Forbes magazine reported that the meeting between the two was no accident: Spacey had been paid by the Mexican Tourism Board to attend the event _ and appear with Pena Nieto. That’s when some Mexicans took to social media to lambaste both the actor and the president.
“How much did the selfie of Pena Nieto with Kevin Spacey cost?” asked the news portal sinembargo.mx in a headline about the photo.
Forbes blogger Dolia Estevez said the head of the tourism board, Rodolfo Lopez Negrete, denied in an email to her a news report that Spacey had been paid $8 million to attend the event, declaring the sum “wrong and without a source.”
A spokesman for the tourism board, Eduardo Regules, did not respond to a telephone message and email.
A day after Spacey sent the tweet, he tweeted again saying that in the photo, “I was in character as Francis Underwood in House of Cards! I don’t know jack about Mexican politics. I should have made that more clear.”
Pena Nieto has 2.6 million followers on Twitter and knows a thing or two about image crafting. On his arm when he came to office in late 2012 was Angelica Rivera, a beloved television soap opera star whom he had married two years earlier.
Mexican fans of Spacey took to his Facebook page Friday to voice their discontent with his choice of “selfie” pals.
“Shame on you. How could you sell yourself to such a corrupt and illiterate president?” wrote Cata Lina on the page Friday afternoon.
“How much did they pay you for taking that picture?” added Jacobo Ricardo Barocio Santos earlier Friday.
One sociologist who studies political imagery, Nicolas Loza Otero, said the nitpicking is mere static to the benefit that Pena Nieto and other Mexican politicians receive by rubbing elbows with Hollywood celebrities.
“People who watch Netflix are middle class or higher,” Loza said. Of them, he added, “there are people who criticize this kind of thing, but I think that overall the balance is positive for Pena Nieto.”
Pena Nieto’s press office has refined the art of releasing seemingly spontaneous photos of the 47-year-old president, such as one of him leaping out of his seat in joy while watching a Mexican soccer match.
On March 14, his office released a selfie-like photo of Pena Nieto leaning toward the camera with Carlos Slim, the telecom tycoon who is one of the world’s richest men, surrounded by the stars of the Leon soccer team, which Slim owns. Slim’s son-in-law, Arturo Elias Ayub, took the photo.
Another expert on social media, Maria Elena Meneses, said Pena Nieto took a hit last month when some Internet users launched a campaign against framework legislation to a telecom overhaul that would allow authorities to block cellphone signals during protests, censor websites and track cellphone communications.
Legislators backed down, although Meneses, who is the coordinator of the Information Society Program at the Technological Institute of Monterrey, said the campaign against Pena Nieto on the legislation “was devastating” and “caused harm to his reputation globally.”
Using public funds to burnish the image of politicians is neither unique to Mexico nor limited to its leaders.
Recent mayors of Mexico City, one of the world’s largest metropolises, routinely have spent tax money to bring well-known artists to the mammoth main plaza for concerts free to the citizenry (but costly to the city till).
Last year, Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera sponsored concerts by balladeer Chayanne and salsa singer Marc Anthony in February, and another by Spanish singer Miguel Bose in May. Each of the concerts drew more than 100,000 people.
His predecessor, Marcelo Ebrard, was pondering a run for the presidency in 2012 when he contracted Justin Bieber and Paul McCartney for separate concerts. McCartney drew 200,000 fans and Bieber brought out as many as 300,000 people.