Benjamin De Cleen

Benjamin De Cleen on Digital Culture in 2018 & 2019

The Editors

Digitalization and digital culture are not only reshaping the world we live in, they also reshape social sciences and the humanities in particular. Diggit Magazine was curious about the impact of digital culture on academia. Now, at the end of the year, we at Diggit Magazine thought that we could use the traditional end-of-year question-format as a pretext to seduce researchers from all over the world and from many different sub-disciplines to reflect on this impact, and to look back and forward. 

Instead of the traditional end-of-year questions, we asked them about the impact of digital culture on their research practice and their field of research in general. Of course we also asked them what they expect to happen in 2019. The traditional end-of-year questions, but reinvented from an academic, and more specifically, a digital culture studies perspective. 

In this interview, we ask Benjamin De Cleen to reflect on the impact of digital culture on his field. Benjamin De Cleen is an assistant professor at the VUB Communication Studies Department where he is the coordinator of the English-language master on Journalism and Media in Europe.

When did you notice that digitalization was substantially reshaping your research field?

I work mainly on the radical right, populism and nationalism from somewhere on the intersections of communication studies, discourse studies and political studies. The radical right’s use of digital communication is nothing new of course. If we look at the Belgian case, which I know best, the Vlaams Belang was one of the first to make structural use of the possibilities offered by the internet. More broadly speaking, the impact of digitalization does not show all of a sudden. What we have seen is a gradual normalization of the use of digital technologies in politics and political communication. 

I do think that the worldwide attention for the so-called alt-right and its online and offline presence in the context of the Trump campaign and early presidency was an important moment as it showcased the specificity of online culture that goes well beyond the use of online communication tools by traditional radical right actors.

I believe that the study of the radical right needs to be firmly grounded in the broader historical and ideological context. And, having a background in communication and media studies, I tend to be very careful with big claims about the impact of new media technology. But the study of the radical right does need to consider important changes in the discourse and in the communication strategies of the radical right and adapt its methodologies and conceptual frameworks accordingly, without losing sight of the broader historical and ideological picture. I think this nuanced approach to continuity and change is a crucial task for students of the radical right, and one that I personally need to work on much more in my work as well.

Can you give a concrete example of the impact of digital culture on your research domain? 

Developments on the American radical right, but also the Flemish Schild & Vrienden and other European identitarian movements, show that any student of the radical right needs to engage with online-specific formats, such as memes. Moreover, whilst the radical right has always been a transnational phenomenon, digital communication networks has changed these transnational ties and have allowed radical right movements to learn and borrow from each other more easily. 

It is crucial that we combine considerations about ideology, discourse and electorate with a profound understanding of the technological and political economic dimensions of online platforms

The importance of online platforms in spreading the radical right’s message shows that students of the radical right and of politics in general need to engage more thoroughly with the algorithms of these online platforms and with their underlying political economy. It is crucial that we combine considerations about ideology, discourse and electorate with a profound understanding of the technological and political economic dimensions of online platforms, and that we ask ourselves how these dimensions interact.

One crucial question for me as a researcher is: How does the political economy of shares and clicks and likes influence the nature and possibility of critique (and of political struggle). Can ideological critique escape the click economy? Can one share and criticize a radical right Facebook post or youtube video without contributing to its legitimacy-in-numbers (x likes or shares)? How can one even critically follow the posts of a radical right movement online without contributing to the perceived legitimacy of that movement?

What was the most remarkable change in 2018 regarding digital culture and your research?

Again, I don’t think there was a remarkable or sudden change in 2018. Still, in Belgium specifically, a Pano documentary by the public broadcaster about the radical right youth movement Schild & Vrienden was an interesting moment. It gave insight into what happens online on the Flemish nationalist radical right, as well as behind the scenes. But the documentary and the reactions to ite also revealed Schild & Vrienden’s ties to the traditional Flemish Movement and to established Flemish nationalist politics. So, to understand a phenomenon like Schild & Vrienden we need to combine attention for the specificities of the digital world with historical insight and more traditional understandings of movements and political networks.

A similar point could be made about the Gilets Jaunes, a movement that has been called populist by some, where we see a mixture of networking and organizing via social media with very traditional political demands (lower fuel prices, etc.) and with traditional forms of physical presence (blocking streets, demonstrating, vandalism). There is a specifically digital dimension of the Gilets Jaunes, and we should deal with that, but we should not overestimate it either.

What do you expect will change in 2019 regarding the impact of digital culture on your research?

I do not expect anything radically new to happen on that front. Instead, I think we will see a further normalization of digital culture.