Character assassination

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Character assassination
Informal practice commonly found in Worldwide
World map.png
Map of Worldwide, where Character assassination commonly takes place.
Entry written by S. Samoilenko, M. Icks, E. Shiraev and J. Keohane.
S. Samoilenko, M. Icks, E. Shiraev and J. Keohane is affiliated to George Mason University and Queen's University Belfast.

Original text by S. Samoilenko, M. Icks, E. Shiraev and J. Keohane

‘Character assassination’ is a practice in which a deliberate and sustained effort is made to damage the reputation or credibility of an individual. Social groups or institutions can also be the target (Icks & Shiraev 2014[1]). ‘Character assassination’ refers to both the process (e.g., a smear campaign), and to the outcome of this process (e.g., a damaged reputation). It may involve various kinds of defamatory attacks, which are similar to the abusive and circumstantial attacks (argumentum ad hominem) used in adversarial contexts to steer attention away from the debated issue to the opponent’s personal traits or reputation (Walton 1998[2]). However, unlike ad hominem attacks, ‘character assassination’ does not have to take place in the context of a debate. It consists of a variety of possible attacks in the form of verbal and non-verbal assaults including spoken insults, rumours, campaign ads, pamphlets, cartoons, and tweets. As a result of such campaigns, individuals may be rejected by their professional community, or by members of their social or cultural environment. Damage sustained in the process of ‘character assassination’ can last a lifetime and has been likened to annihilation.

‘Character assassination’ is a cross-cultural phenomenon that reveals itself in a variety of forms and methods in every political and social environment. The issues of ‘character assassination’ have been addressed in psychology, political science, history, and communication studies. As a field of scholarly inquiry, it is often explained by the organising concepts of rationality and intentionality, source credibility, political and societal image, public opinion, social norms, and cultural values. The phenomenon of ‘character assassination’ should be addressed from four different perspectives: the Attacker; the Victim; the Media and the Public. ‘Character assassination’ should be also addressed in relation to studies of public opinion, reputation management and image restoration.

In 2014 Icks and Shiraev introduced a classification of seven ‘character assassination’ methods, which they defined as ‘anonymous lies’, ‘misquoting’, ‘silencing’, ‘acts of vandalism’, ‘name-calling’, ‘mental illness’ and ‘sexual deviance’.

The authors identified the website of Wikipedia as a common context for ‘anonymous lies’. Examples of ‘contributions’ found here include falsifications of a person’s early biography, suggestions of inappropriate sexual behaviour or sexual deviance, and forged evidence about an individual’s inappropriate social ties or political associations. The second method, which the authors defined as ‘misquoting’, is an amalgam of two practices: omitting significant details from a quote and/or quoting out of context. This method can also refer to manipulatively selecting unfortunate or poor photographs taken in awkward situations, which then promulgate ridicule. A common aim for journalists or bloggers is to show a politician in a poor light: for example, a politician holding a crying baby is a deliberate use of an inopportune photograph.

‘Silencing’ is a further long-term method of ‘character assassination’, which often occurs post-mortem. The distortion of history is an example of silencing. ‘Memory erasing’ also refers to the practice of avoiding any reference to an individual and their work by the attacker, in an attempt to erase their public record from collective memory. Even in antiquity, the Egyptians, the Romans, and other cultures applied memory sanctions against disgraced rulers and public figures, such as Pharaoh Akhenaten and the Roman Emperors Caligula and Nero. Their images were destroyed and their names erased from public consciousness. However, the art of memory erasure and the distortion of history were taken to a new level in totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century. Some the most notorious examples were in Stalin’s Russia, where Trotsky, Yezhov, and other prominent political and military figures were removed from pictures and history books. The concept of ‘memory hole’ was introduced by George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984, where the Party's Ministry of Truth systematically re-created all potential historical documents, and in effect, re-wrote history to match the often-changing state propaganda.

The ‘character assassination’ method of ‘name-calling’ usually appears in a form of a quick, short insult, ridicule or in the application of specific, demonising labels. In politics, ideological labels such as ‘communist,’ ‘fascist,’ ‘Nazi,’ ‘capitalist,’ ‘imperialist,’ or ‘terrorist’ are quickly attached to political leaders and officials. Ridicule is a purposeful and contemptuous exaggeration or distortion in a comical context. Its humorous nature helps attackers portray their victims as weak, stupid, unbalanced, irrational, or hypocritical. If successful, it puts a negative slant on a candidate and his/her policies so they appear less meaningful or important than they actually are. Incompetence and ignorance are favorite themes of ridiculing.

Allegations of an individual experiencing a mental illness in the past or currently experiencing mental illness is a common ‘character assassination’ ploy which is successful because of the strong social stigma attached to psychological disorders. This label associates the individual by implication with other negative notions of such as lack of rationality and instability. In 2014 for example, during the tensions between Russia and Ukraine following the annexation of Crimea, a number of articles appeared in the press claiming that President Putin was erratic and unstable. Authors based their reports on rumours that ‘Putin has become increasingly withdrawn and isolated’ and ‘is appearing live on television less frequently’. (Hahn 2015[3])

Lastly, with the growing influence of public opinion, moral behavior has emerged as a desirable standard; any deviation, especially with regard to sexual conduct, leaves an individual open to character attacks. Short-term ‘character assassination’ attempts are frequently based on alleged inappropriate acts, such as having an extramarital affair. Long-term character attacks require allegations about a person’s persistent pattern of ‘deviant’ behavior.

‘Character Assassination’ can be applied in a number of contexts. In politics, ‘character assassination’ is usually a part of a political ‘smear campaign’ that involves intentional, premeditated efforts to undermine an individual or group's reputation and credibility. ‘Negative campaigning’, also known more colloquially as ‘mudslinging’, is the process of trying to gain advantage by referring to negative aspects of an opponent or of a policy rather than emphasising one's own positive attributes or preferred policies. In U.S. presidential politics a variety of strategies are employed including ‘cheap shots’, ’falsification’, and ‘smears’. ‘Cheap shots’ typically allude to a victim’s individual features, including, but not limited to, his or her credibility, competence and honesty; ‘falsifications’ are lies, which by the time they are used in an attack are often difficult to distinguish from facts. Direct attacks involve strong accusations about a person’s character flaws and tend to be based on facts.

‘Smears’ often consist of ad hominem attacks in the form of distortions, half-truths, or even outright lies. The attackers may involve doublespeak, raising false accusations, spreading innuendo, or deliberately misinforming others about the opponent’s morals, integrity, or public image. It may also involve manipulating and spinning technically true information, but presenting it in a misleading manner, devoid of necessary context. Even when the facts behind a ‘smear’ campaign have been demonstrated to lack proper foundation, the tactic is often effective because the target's reputation remains tarnished regardless of the truth. ‘Smears’ are also effective in diverting attention away from the matter in question. Rather than responding to the original issue, the target of the smear has to correct the false information.

‘Political rumoring’ is not innocuous chatter, but rather a phenomenon with important electoral consequences. It may include painting an opponent as soft on criminals, dishonest, corrupt, or as a danger to the nation. In modern election campaigns, individuals are more willing to believe the negative rumours about an opposition candidate than negative rumours about their own party candidates.

In the mid-1990s, political marketing specialists in Russia introduced a practice known as ‘black PR’, which was used as a potent smear campaign tool. Unlike ‘negative advertising’ used in Western politics, ‘black PR’ is best known for using compromising materials (kompromat – see this volume) about politicians and other public figures. These ‘Black PR’ techniques were used in 2014 during regional elections in Russia. Examples included compromising material about the alleged criminal connections or past conviction of candidates, as well as information about their wealth, property, and income. Such materials were used for a variety of purposes, including creating negative publicity, blackmailing, and ensuring loyalty. The wave of kompromat was generated not only by the demands of the media owners, but also by the journalists themselves. Credible falsehoods, transcripts of taped telephone conversations, and pseudo-events were thrown to the press in the guise of ‘news.’ This questionable practice was able to flourish under Russian law, as journalists were not obliged to reveal their sources, except when ordered to do so by a court. Russian news reports showed compromising materials in a biased or incomplete way. The aim was not only to report negative news about an individual or an organisation, but the intent was also to obfuscate and confuse the viewer.

Fundamentally, an attack on one’s image, reputation, or brand is dependent on audience perception. Studies in the field of motivated reasoning (Icks, Shiraev 2014[4]) show that consumers are highly selective regarding what they deem is ‘credible’ information, preferring to accept what is most congruent with existing attitudes, expectations, or actions. Five strategies of ‘image restoration’ for victims have been identified. Suggested responses include ‘denial’, ‘evading responsibility’, ‘reducing offensiveness’, ‘corrective action’, and ‘mortification’ (Benoit 1995[5]). This image restoration theory is used to mitigate image damage following a threat to a reputation. As well as the strategies mentioned above, other tactics might also include attacks on the accuser.

Situational Crisis Communication Theory (Coombs, 2007[6]) suggests that the level of reputation threat is determined by whether the public believes the organisation caused the crisis, is dependent on the organisation’s crisis history, and the organisation’s prior relational reputation with the public. Unfortunately for the victim, crises serve as an excellent source of news material. Dramatic events often draw the attention of the media industry whose sole purpose is to shock their audience and to sensationalise events by showing them in a tragic or politicised context. It is evident that ‘character assassination’ techniques are increasingly employed in the news media along with ‘hate speech’ and other methods of psychological warfare. The surge of hype, hysteria and sensationalism in the media is particularly evident when events are positioned as major threats to national security, political stability or foreign policy.

The rise of ‘character assassination’ techniques in the 21st century proves to be consistent with many observations, which focus on the negative effects of the media on politics and society, such as simplification, and the negative representation of politics, which favours conflict and personalisation.

References and Bibliography

  1. Garrett, R.K. 2011. ‘Troubling consequences of online political rumoring’, Human Communication Research, 37(2), 255–274.
  2. Oates, S. 2006. Television, Democracy and Elections in Russia. London: Routledge


  1. Icks, M., & Shiraev, E.B. 2014. Character assassination throughout the ages. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
  2. Walton, D. N. 1998. Ad Hominem Arguments. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.
  3. Hahn, G.M. 2015. ‘Putin is crazy or sick: The lows of American Rusology,’ 25 September
  4. Icks, M., & Shiraev, E.B. 2014. Character assassination throughout the ages. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
  5. Benoit, W. 1995. Accounts, excuses, and apologies: A theory of image restoration strategies. New York: State University of New York Press.
  6. Coombs, W.T. 2007. ‘Protecting organization reputations during a crisis: The development and application of situational crisis communication theory’, Corporate Reputation Review, 10(3), 163-176.