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PhD Projects

Pseudo-journalistic political communication: When politicians act like journalists


Max PhD Project

This PhD project analyzes the use of journalistic genres in political communication, focusing on the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ) as populist radical right (PRR) parties that are key players in the contemporary hybridization of political communication. Bridging journalism studies and political communication, it proposes the term pseudo-journalistic political communication to capture hybrid genres that emerge through the integration of journalistic genre resources in political communication. Taking into account complex interactions between content, production and reception in the negotiation of genres, it examines three interrelated levels. On a content level, it constructs a typology of uses of journalistic genres in PRR political communication, and then performs an in-depth multimodal genre analysis on a subset of content that makes substantive and structural use of journalistic genres. On a production level, a social network analysis constructs a detailed map of the production context of such pseudo-journalistic political communication. Through its focus on pseudo-journalistic political communication the research fills a significant gap in the literature on political communication, on the contemporary politics-journalism nexus more broadly, as well as on PRR parties.

Project Details

Started in November 2022.
Researcher: Maximilian Grönegräs
Academic Promotors: Benjamin De Cleen & Yazan Badran

Digital Belongings: an Analysis of Radical Islamist Discourses and Resistive Counternarratives on Social Media Platforms



This research will study online discursive strategies and practices employed by digital publics from two opposing ideological groups – far-right radical Islamists and so-called secular Pluralists – to explore the echo chamber phenomenon on diverse social media platforms including Facebook groups/pages, YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok. Based on a critical discourse analysis and digital ethnography of two related two ideological groups (the ‘radical’ Islamists and the ‘secular’ Pluralists), this research seeks to (i) explain the nature of similarities and differences in these exclusivist and self-reinforcing narratives, and access the online discourses and activities of one group emboldens the other; (ii) analyze radical Islamist discourses and secular counternarratives in the Pakistani context (iii) understand the flows of discourses between various actors withing diverse Internet subcultures and across the aforementioned social media platform; and (iv) unravel the details and dynamics of how users employ strategies of resistance to challenge mainstream discourses and offer alternatives to the ‘extremist’ narrative. This stufy aims to light on constant conflicts between stark left-right divides over information, ideas and discourse construction while contributing to the ongoing scholarship on social media echo chambers, online radicalization and counternarratives strategies as resistance.

Project Details

Started in October 2020.
Researcher: Fatima Zahid Ali
Academic Promotor: Kevin Smets; Benjamin De Cleen.

Understanding the notions of public and private in the Chinese context: the case of the Chinese social media regulation



The notions of ‘public’ and ‘private’ have been core concepts in Western thought since classical antiquity. The question whether the public-private dichotomy is suitable for understanding a non-western context is rarely asked in academic research. Western political discourse and media regularly apply Western concepts and values to non-Western contexts, for instance in relation to the Chinese notions of ‘private’ vs ‘public’. This research aims at providing an alternative perspective on the public/private debate. Furthermore, it investigates how these notions differ in the Chinese and Western contexts, and how they materialize in the Chinese social media regulation.

Project Details

Started on 14/09/16
Researcher: Jinxixi Lyu;
Funding: China scholarship council (CSC).
Academic Promotor: Katia Segers; Co-supervisors: Pascal Verhoest; Joke Bauwens.

Cultural identity performance on social media: the case of Bolivian university students



The aim of this research is to demonstrate how cultural identities of Bolivian young adults (18-25 years old) are being performed and constructed on social network sites. To do so, the research will be based on a qualitative approach that makes use of focus groups, in-depth interviews, and digital ethnography. It fills a gap as one of the few studies on cultural identities and social media in the Latin American context.

Project Details

Started on 15/04/2021, Ongoing
Researcher: Paola Condemayta Soto
Academic Promotors: Joke Bauwens; co-supervisor: Kevin Smets.




While cinematic self-representations of migrants have been explored both in fiction and documentary film, this study aims at expanding recent discussions on border cinema from a bottom-up perspective, which includes vernacular self-images made by people who cross borders. A growing body of migrant self-images, mostly recorded with mobile phones and widely circulated on digital platforms, has not only transformed the practises of journalism or filmmaking but has also become part of the governmentality of migration. Moreover, this study intends to outline a vernacular border film theory from technical, economic and socio-cultural points of view by analyzing the different stages of archiving, producing, curating and circulating border cinema at the borderlands of Ceuta and Melilla, Ireland-UK and Syria-Turkey. It will also compare the politics of vernacular images in said borderlands in order to explore (1) the tensions and correspondences between the border regime and the regime of representation of migration and how both are contested through vernacular migrant self-images and (2) the complex links between migration politics and the politics of migrating images from the private to the public. The study adopts a triangular methodology that combines archive research, participant observation and participatory video methods with migrants in order to collect, create, re-elaborate and transform some of their vernacular self-images from unseen video footage into cinema that prioritizes their public voice and participation.
The dissertation is part of the European Research Council Starting Grant #948278 REEL BORDERS. More info:

Project Details

Started on 01/03/21 Ends on 01/03/25
Researcher: Irene Gutiérrez
Academic Promotor: Kevin Smets.

Gay-targeted advertising in Flanders: Flemish LGBTQ+ people’s reception of gay-themed advertising



The sociopolitical climate on LGBTQ+ people has evolved significantly in parts of the US and Europe during the last decades, and also marketing industries have stepped in, acknowledging the opportunities of this ‘dream market’ consumer segment. This resulted in a growing interest in the gay consumer market followed by the emergence of gay-targeted advertising. However, little is known about the implications thereof on LGBTQ+ people’s perception of how they are visually represented in, for example, gay-themed advertising. Hence, this study sets forth to provide further insights into the extant scientific knowledge on this matter and to contribute to the understanding of the interchange of sexuality, gender, generational membership, and ethnicity with regard to the gay-themed advertising. It does so by focusing on LGBTQ+ people in Flanders, which at the same time broadens the focus on the US, a context where most related studies have been conducted so far.

Project Details

Started on 01/10/17; Ends on 01/10/23
Researcher: Rein Demunter;
Academic Promotor: Kevin Smets; Joke Bauwens.

Media discourses about populism: protecting what kind of democracy?



Over the course of these last few years, ‘populism’ seemed to be everywhere. Not only populist actors appeared everywhere, but the term ‘populism’ became omnipresent in media coverage. When journalists increasingly use ‘populism’, this is however not a mere consequence of the rise of populist politics, and the coverage of such politics as ‘populist’ has an impact on the prevalence and success of populist politics. Journalists often seem to use populism in relation to democracy, and more specifically to criticize certain kinds of politics. This PhD research looks at how Belgian journalists use ‘populism’ to discursively construct the boundaries of democracy.

Project Details

Started on 1/10/2017, End on 1/10/2023
Researcher: Jana Goyvaerts
Academic Promotor: Benjamin De Cleen

China as an 'Imagined Other 'in Europe



This project aims to investigate if stereotypical perceptions towards China/ Chinese people exist among Europeans. The main objectives are exploring the cognitive process of stereotypes and the links between stereotypes and media framing, plus a variety of social factors. The "cognitive resonance approach" is employed as the methodology. In short, it combines elicitation tests, semantic coding with cluster analysis to uncover and categorize the cognitive schemes that explain the perceptions of different population groups. Additionally, an analysis of media usage, intergroup contact, racial attitudes, social-distance scale  and cosmopolitism are used to investigate the extent to which shared perceptions relate to common values and sentiments towards China and Chinese people. Furthermore, the way in which these factors interact with each other will be explored in a social and cultural context through a statistical modelling.

Project Details

Funding: China scholarship council ( CSC) Ends on 31/08/2023
Researcher: Yuejue Zhang
Academic Promotor: Pascal Verhoest




Words defining people in migration (e.g. refugee, migrant, immigrant, asylum-seeker, illegal, displaced person) are not fixed in time. Indeed, their meaning and reference evolve according to events and social representations, contributing to constructing both the public issue and the image of the social actors involved. The aim of this research is to understand, through a lexical discourse analysis, the evolution of the meanings of the terms mentioned above and the way they are used in Belgian national media in French and Dutch. The analysis will focus on newspapers and television news from March 2015 to July 2017.

Project Details

Funding: FRESH (FNRS) Ends on 11/01/2023
Researcher: Valériane Mistiaen
Co-tutelle ULB/VUB, with promotors: Laura Calabrese (ULB) and Benjamin De Cleen (VUB).

Conceptualizing Hybrid-Fiction



Migration is amongst the most emotive themes in today's societies. It has become the hub of people's worries and fears, and mass media have often echoed such feelings. New ways of reporting this compelling subject can tell a different story, drawing attention to the political, economic, and social magnitude of migration while, simultaneously, reaffirming the humanity of migrants. Media and migration research has, up to now, exclusively considered cinema, documentary, traditional news, and data-visualization as separate genres. Consequently, powerful and original productions on migration have gone unnoticed due to their intrinsic nature of hybrid objects.

Project Details

Started on 1/11/20 Ends on 31/10/22
Researcher: Giacomo Toffano
Academic Promotor: Kevin Smets

Making sense of Transdisciplinary Learning Research Communities for vulnerable contexts in Bolivia



The aim of this research is to understand how the different actors of an inter-university program for social development -between Belgium and Bolivia- tell, discuss, build, and experience the sensemaking of “Transdisciplinary Learning Communities”. “TLC” (for short) is the methodological approach of this program. The research is based on a critical sensemaking perspective, where power relations, tensions, and struggles play an important role. This research analyzes the discourses, narratives, and interactions of the actors involved (micro level) and the link between these communicational practices with the academic institutional context (meso level), and the chosen vulnerable contexts in Bolivia (macro level). Against this backdrop, the research intends to develop a “critical sensemaking model” which can be applied in other social and communication studies.

Project Details

Started on 01/10/18 Ends on 11/01/2023
Researcher: Guadalupe Peres Cajas;
Academic Promotor: Joke Bauwens; Marc Craps; Gerrit Loots.

New dynamics of Turkish and Kurdish chain migration to London and Brussels: a visual sociological study



This project aims to explore the experiences of recent migrants from Turkey to London and Brussels through the concept of urban citizenship. It intends to discover complexities and nuances of newcomers’ relations with established diaspora and host communities within the urban spaces of these cities. As these places, both diverse global cities, form the immediate spaces in which migrants articulate and construct their being, visual research methods, in particular filming, will shed light on these matters. Moreover, it aims to explore how audio-visual research methods can help us to understand contrasting experiences of the city and mobility.

Project Details

Started on 01/09/19 Ends on 01/09/23
Funding: EUTOPIA – Co-tutelle PhD programme between University of Warwick and VUB
Researcher: Yasemin Karsli
Academic Promotor: Kevin Smets, Hannah Jones

Of Populists and Euro Bubbles: How Europe’s far-right political movements are covered by the Brussels Press Corps



This project aims to explore how far right-wing political parties and movements in Europe are covered by the Brussels Press Corps. This research becomes particularly important as the concept of a European identity and transnational trends in politics grows and shapes a European public sphere amidst the backdrop of Brussels' growing political and legislative power on the continent. Meanwhile, as the influence of the EU institutions strengthens and encroaches on national jurisdictions, far-right movements have emerged across Europe and come to shape the national debate surrounding EU membership and power centralization in Brussels. Given the professional duty of the Brussels Press Corps to report on the growing political importance and power held in Brussels amidst the growing popularity of far-right movements across Europe, the central question this project examines is how the Brussels Press Corps cover far-right governments and movements in the EU.

Project Details

Started on 01/09/20
Researcher: Kait Bolongaro
Academic Promotor: Benjamin De Cleen

New Communication Spaces in the Arab World




The study aims to investigate the new communication spaces opening up in the Arab World, by looking at emerging media organisations as a specific category of media producers in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria. The study aims at examining the phenomenon of emerging media organisations beyond the dichotomy of mass and alternative media. Moreover, it intends to outline the structural conditions (state relations and regulation, ownership structures and financing models) that condition the operations of emerging media organisations in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria. It also aims to analyse the processes of resistance, negotiation and mediation that take place at the level of the organisation and the journalistic values it produces. The study adopts a mixed-method approach that allows for a more in-depth understanding of the target organisations. It includes extensive research stays at the different countries (Turkey, in the case of Syrian media) with several weeks of participant observations at each organisation.

Project Details

Started on 01/11/18 Ends on 31/12/21
Researcher: Yazan Badran
Academic Promotor: Kevin Smets

A multilevel and mixed methods investigation into the role of media capture in media systems in transitional democracies: the case of Iraqi Kurdistan



When authoritarian regimes are overthrown, it is commonly expected that the emerging political systems will adopt many aspects of Western-based models of democratic government, including models of parliamentary democracy, human rights, and freedom of speech. According to existing studies, however, the practical realities of these ‘transitional democracies’ often defy this expectation. The aim of this research proposal is to investigate how the concept of media capture allows us to understand media systems in transitional democracies by analysing the different mechanisms with which powerful social actors attempt to control media in the case of Iraqi Kurdistan. To this end, it puts forward a highly innovative mixed methods design, in which a quantitative content analysis is used for the level of financing, document analysis and interviews with state officials and politicians for the level of regulatory control, and interviews with journalists and editors in chief for the level of journalistic culture. In this way, this proposal not only puts forward a multi-methodological approach that combines the paradigm of political economy with rigorous social-scientific research. It also makes this study comprehensive and able to triangulate its results across these different levels, thereby offering a multidimensional picture of how these mechanisms add to our understanding of (the level of media capture in) media systems in transitional democracies.

Project Details

Started on 1/10/2016, Ends on 1/10/2023
Researcher: Jiyan Faris
Academic Promotors:
Pieter Maeseele, Kevin Smets.