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CARP-2017 EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
The 2017 Conference on Character Assassination in Theory and Practice took place at George Mason University's Arlington Campus from March 3-5, 2017. This conference welcomed numerous U.S. and international researchers and academics studying different aspects of character assassination. The conference was organized and hosted by George Mason University’s Department of Communication and the department’s Character Assassination and Reputation Politics (CARP) Research Lab. The three-day CARP 2017 conference also featured critical input from practitioners in crisis management, journalism, and public relations. This press release summarizes the key proceedings of the conference.
§ The contemporary media environment is conducive to incivility in political communication;
§ Character-centered competition continues to prevail in political discourse and legitimize the use of character assassination;
§ Impression management skills of political actors remain crucial under conditions of public distrust in institutions;
§ Protracted antagonism between President Donald Trump and the press is likely to exacerbate deepening distrust in both political institutions and the media;
§ Pre-emptive inoculation and image prepare strategies are recommended as viable counter-strategies against character assassination.
The Research Lab for Character Assassination and Reputation Politics (CARP) includes scholars with disciplinary homes in psychology, history, communication and public relations. With investigators from George Mason University, the University of Baltimore, and the University of Amsterdam, the CARP team focuses efforts along three main dimensions: research on historical and contemporary examples of character assassination; education for academic and public audiences about character assassination causes, impacts and prevention; and risk assessment to determine vulnerabilities and mitigation strategies for public figures concerned about their reputations. The CARP website features materials about the lab and its activities.
Character Assassination as a Field of Academic Research
Character assassination (CA) is the deliberate destruction of an individual’s reputation or credibility. It refers to both the process (e.g., a smear campaign), and the outcome of this process (e.g., a damaged reputation). Character assassination consists of both direct and indirect character attacks in the form of verbal and non-verbal assaults and accusations aimed at a person's morals, integrity, and public image. CA tactics may include cheap shots, rumors, negative advertising, pamphlets, cartoons, Internet memes, inopportune photos, and many other techniques. Other CA methods may include the erasing of collective memory through history distortion, editing Wikipedia entries, or silencing someone's merits or professional achievements in the public sphere. Because of character attacks, individuals may be rejected by their professional community or members of their social or cultural groups. The process of character attacking may resemble an annihilation of a human life, as the damage sustained can last a lifetime. For some historical figures that damage endures for centuries.
Although character assassination appears to be as old as human civilization, there had been little academic interest until the 1950s. Since then, the academic community has been working on this notion, preceding the current boom of CA use by media and public figures. The widespread use of character assassination in recent years is directly related to the rise of incivility in contemporary politics.
As a field of academic inquiry, the study of CA has lately been experiencing a renaissance. It now attracts significant interest across many disciplines. In the summer of 2011, a group of scholars organized the first international conference on character assassination at the University of Heidelberg, funded by the 7th Framework Program of the European Union. Following this conference, Martijn Icks and Eric Shiraev edited Character Assassination throughout the Ages. Since 2014, academic courses in different countries study scientific research, theory, and applications concerning the CA phenomenon. Since 2014, the module HIS1003: Ancient Smear - Defamation in Ancient Greece and Rome has been taught at Queen's University Belfast. Another interdisciplinary course: Character Assassination and Reputation Management in Public Relations has been offered at George Mason University for undergraduate students majoring in communication and political science.
The 2016 U.S. presidential election provides an extensive database for scholars. It was not only characterized by an increase in “nasty politics,” but also by the rise of populism and political showmanship that employed character attacks strategically to shock the audience to steal the media spotlight. This election urged researchers to ask answer many questions. Among them, how does character assassination work? Why do some attack targets fall so easily, when others remain immune to smear campaigns? How does one prevent and defend against character assassination? The purpose of this conference was to address these and many other questions.
CARP 2017 Conference Proceedings
Keynote Speech: Eric Dezenhall (Dezenhall Resources)
Crisis manager Eric Dezenhall offered a practitioner's view of modern crisis management within a new media environment. Dezenhall argued that many old practices of managing conflicts have become obsolete in today’s media ecosystem. Specifically, reputational attacks are becoming worse because of three main reasons: the velocity or the speed of information, the volume of the information, and the venom – or negativity -- of the allegations. They all may add to the “fiasco vortex,” which refers to a runaway crisis of snowball effects that magnify destructive information and spread beyond the reach of available treatments. An example of a fiasco vortex was FBI director James Comey informing congressional leaders on the Clinton email investigation on Oct. 28, 2016, during the presidential general election. That created a runaway crisis from which Hillary Clinton did not recover. These three factors primarily define the degree and severity of reputational attacks in a real-time Twitter cycle. Dezenhall argued that new technology has made users with malicious intent empowered and promiscuous in their ability to injure potential victims. In addition to these three factors, anonymous attack platforms, incentives for spreading damaging information, as well as attackers’ hunger for visibility, all work against potential targets.
The velocity of news has led to the “tyranny of speed over accuracy.” Both the news media and their audiences gain from the perpetuation of hostilities in the media. People get addicted to negative information: the more they hear about a scandal, the more they want to know about it regardless of the actual truth. For example, when the Toyota “sudden acceleration” crisis ignited in 2009, each new wave of consumer complaints generated a new cascade of coverage.
In crisis, attack targets are surrounded by active “investors” (the media, bloggers, activists, short-sellers, competitors, etc.) who conspire for the crisis to get worse. Network attack programs broadcast packaged stories by plaintiffs' lawyers equipped with Dezenhall’s construct of “victims, villains, and vindicators.” The victims are the vulnerable players injured by the villains, the main targets of the investigation. At the same time, these roles are sometimes negotiable in the court of public opinion. When Michael Jackson was accused of child molestation in 2003, he went from villain to victim after the media revealed that his accusers had a past record of extortion. There are also recent cases of successful resistance to new types of vindicators. For example, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus got $16 million from animal activists falsely alleging they had been injuring animals in 2014. Another case in which an Internet organization was held accountable occurred in 2016, when former professional wrestler and reality television star Hulk Hogan won a lawsuit against Gawker Media for violating his privacy. As part of the agreement, a Gawker Media article about Hogan’s sex tapes was removed from the Internet.
Crisis management is different from regular public relations in the sense that instead of investing in active communication, crisis managers sometimes help their clients fix fundamental problems or mitigate defamatory coverage. Thus, social media are usually ineffective or counterproductive as a controllable defensive narrative device. Social media are a vehicle of dispersion, an offensive technology that is good for building awareness. Crisis management, on the other hand, is the “discipline of containment.” Using social media to fight a crisis usually makes it worse, because whoever owns the most negative information will hijack the media agenda. In crisis management, social media should be used to gather insight about a topic, to gauge the volume and intensity of conversations about clients, and to understand what users find newsworthy. Continuously monitoring online conversations enables crisis managers to stay updated about their progress and counter falsehoods when necessary.
Crisis managers help targets of reputational attack to define reality, assess risks and damages, and minimize the harm of attacks. In crisis, many people are unable to determine whether a specific crisis situation is a case of character assassination as most people naturally feel victimized and experience psychological distress. Most importantly, not all scandals are created equal. There are some reputational attacks that are deserved and some are in gray areas. There are a handful of variables that affect who and what becomes a target, which targets survive and thrive, and which do not. They include: the complexity of the case, the degree of harm, real and perceived vulnerability of the victim, the degree of adversary's motivation, availability of invested constituents, and other factors. Such factors as public image and likability of the victim and the attacker determine media reactions. For example, an oil company and a nonprofit organization will be covered differently by the media in a crisis situation.
Apologies are popular solutions during crisis situations, but have limits depending on the nature of the crisis, the truth of the allegations, and the power of the principal's constituents. Before one embarks on a path of redemption, it pays to know whether an apology will be right for the situation. A response to a reputational attack must be anchored in good judgment, and with consideration for the consequences of responding, at what speed, in what proportion and in what duration.
Professional Panel: “Character Assassination and the Media Spectrum”
Alex Rosenwald, Public Affairs Director at Media DC
Bob Cusack, Editor in Chief at The Hill
Hugo Gurdon, Editorial Director at Washington Examiner
Daniel Lippman, Reporter and co-author of Playbook at POLITICO
Alan Rosenblatt, Director of Digital Research, Lake Research Partners
Richard Sheehe, Mason Senior Research Fellow (Moderator)
This panel brought together several Washington, DC media experts to explore where and how character assassination occurs in today’s media landscape. In his opening remarks, moderator Richard Sheehe argued this media landscape is best understood as a spectrum of factors and dynamics. Across all forms of media (print, broadcast, social), there’s a whole range of political and ideological viewpoints spread across a range of media formats — from seven word memes on Facebook, to long-form newsmagazine interviews.
The 2016 U.S. presidential election figured prominently in this session. Panelists specifically addressed the implications of President Trump’s dogged criticism of the press, including his statements on Twitter and at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference describing the “fake news media” as the enemy of the American people. Panelists differed in their interpretations, though they unanimously agreed that it is improper for the Trump administration to show favoritism by selectively inviting some media outlets to news briefings, while completely ignoring others. Daniel Lippman described the personal affront that he and his Politico colleagues felt when their organization was excluded from such a White House briefing.
For The Hill’s Bob Cusack, not all media outlets were focused on getting the facts right during the presidential election, which made it easy for Trump to discredit the media as a whole. The Washington Examiner’s Hugo Gurdon, meanwhile, argued that Trump’s accusations lack adequate intention and malice to be classified as character assassination. The question of intention also surfaced in cases where individuals, like Monica Lewinsky, suffer reputational harm as “collateral damage” in larger political wars.
Alan Rosenblatt argued that repeated attacks on the media were eroding trust, which in turn makes it easier for bad actors to plant fake news stories in the media and to assassinate the character of critics. Panelists conceded that incivility and character attacks become the currency of contemporary political discussions increasingly focused on personal flaws instead of issues. There was agreement that antagonism between President Trump and the press is significant.
The panel further explored whether it is appropriate for the media to rely on mental health experts to assess public figures’ character. Specifically, they discussed a Feb 13, 2017, letter to the editor, entitled “Mental Health Professionals Warn About Trump,” signed by dozens of psychiatrists. The panelists noted that this letter violated the Goldwater rule by the American Psychiatric Association, which states it is unethical for psychiatrists to give a professional opinion about public figures they have not examined in person. Panelists argued that the Goldwater rule had merit, but it should not be so absolute as to silence the expert community entirely in cases where a mental health issue may impact national security.
Panelists also addressed “Right to be Forgotten” legislation put into practice primarily in the European Union that allows individuals to shield their online historical data from search engines. While most panelists agreed that introducing this law in the United States would mean an infringement of free flow of information, there should nonetheless be protection against falsehoods, pranks or errors that prevent people from getting a job or living a normal life. While people with means can afford to purchase domain names to keep them out of the hands of detractors, average citizens cannot afford this sort of identity protection.
The panel concluded that the 2016 presidential election forced the media to come to terms with some of its own shortcomings and revise its practices. Panelists also pointed out systemic issues in the media, including declining profitability, massive restructuring, and resource challenges that undermine the media’s ability to cover basic news, much less do investigative journalism. While the Trump phenomenon brought numerous financial benefits to the media in terms of ratings and web traffic, the panelists emphasized how the press should revisit its primary role as guard of the democracy.
Character Assassination as Multidisciplinary Inquiry
Character assassination is best understood when studied from a variety of scholarly disciplines. An in-depth analysis of the historical context explains the causes and effects of CA events as well as the historical consequences of key actors’ decisions. Rhetorical studies explore how speakers select persuasive strategies to build their own characters and attack those of others. Media studies provide an important insight into mediated politics, such as simplification, personalization, and negative representations of politics favoring conflict. Finally, psychology explains intentions, decisions, personal traits, and mental profiles of victimizers, victims, and multiple audiences passing judgments.
Martijn Icks (University of Amsterdam) addressed character assassination as a timeless and cross-cultural phenomenon that reveals itself in a variety of forms and methods in every historical epoch. In the first part of his presentation, he discussed the key criteria of character assassination and how they are different from (but also overlap with) the creation of enemy images. In the second part, he discussed two important stages in the history of character assassination. Firstly, Greco-Roman times saw the rise of rhetoric as an instrument of CA. These rhetorical character attacks reached only limited audiences, but were a very widespread and accepted practice against which there was no legal protection. Secondly, the invention of the printing press (ca. 1450) allowed first Martin Luther and later the leaders of the Dutch Revolt to launch character attacks against the Catholic Church and their Spanish overlords on a hitherto unprecedented scale, while also allowing the possibility of visual attacks in the form of cartoons.
Jennifer Keohane (University of Baltimore) argued that rhetorical studies is an important way to study character assassination given that rhetoric provides a focus on the different ways speakers come to have character, or ethos. Rhetoric also provides insights into how character is legitimated by the audience for a persuasive message. As an illustrative example, the 1954 exchange on NBC’s television program See it Now between journalist Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy was examined. Keohane suggested that Murrow’s attack on McCarthy succeeded due to the rhetorical savvy with which he confirmed what audiences felt they already knew about his own character. McCarthy’s ignored response, aired one month later, sidestepped most of Murrow’s most important indictments. In his wandering rejoinder, McCarthy enacted components of Murrow’s argument while failing to meet his burden of proof.
Sergei Samoilenko (George Mason University) argued that character assassination should be studied along with the logic of the media industry. The believability of reputational attacks is not only dependent on the rhetorical sophistication of the attacker, but also on their understanding of how the media industry works. Mass media play a critical role in manufacturing the perceived reality of reputational crises and shaping public attitudes towards them. The high emphasis on personalization in the media explains the popularity of materials and programs covering interpersonal conflicts and flawed personal characteristics of public figures. Naturally, this creates a media environment in which rumors and character attacks on politicians and other public figures become the norm. By favoring certain agendas, the news media inevitably engage in the process of framing which involves selecting some aspects of a perceived of reality while obscuring other elements. It is critical to understand frame building and frame setting processes of media coverage which can affect mass opinion by attaching memorable labels or assigning blame to political actors. Scholars should also explore the effects of user-generated and "visual" frames towards personalities and their effect on public opinion in digital environments.
Eric Shiraev (George Mason University) addressed the benefits of studying character assassination from the perspective of political psychology. According to him, in order to cope with an endless stream of information, people often pay more attention to the most salient, outstanding messages. Most sensational, disturbing, and ferocious attacks can automatically activate our brain’s cognitive surveillance system and may challenge our prior opinions and even behavioral habits. Shiraev argued that CA cases can be categorized in terms of their scope (individual/collective), timing (live/postmortem), and momentum (planned/spontaneous). For example, collective character assassination, as a form of summary punishment, was practiced in the 1930-50s in communist countries to target groups of officials and even larger social groups. In addition, postmortem "character poisoning" is often conducted to discredit a cause, an idea, a theory, or an ideology of the deceased. The biographies of Vladimir Lenin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, or Mohandas Gandhi are continually scrutinized for the purpose of discrediting their legacy. Most political campaigns feature both instantaneous or “drive-by” cheap shots as long-term character poisoning strategies. In addition, six methods of character assassination were introduced. Shiraev concluded that while the current CA taxonomy provides a strong overview of the strategies attackers may use, it needs to be validated from the perspective of other disciplines.
Character Assassination in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election
New media realities lead to growing incivility in today’s political discourse. Tabloid press, such as the National Enquirer in the U.S. and the Daily Mail in the U.K., thrives under current conditions. Both tabloid journalism and television entertainment normalize personal ridicule in political discourse. The 2016 U.S. presidential campaign demonstrated the power of Twitter hashtags, which have the potential to go viral and become popular memes. Frequently shared memes and repeated slogans have subversive power, as they take over an official agenda and steer conversations and public attention towards personal traits of politicians. Political comedy creates a breeding ground for intemperate or unjustified personal attacks.
The study from a research team at the Center for Political Communication and Civic Leadership at the University of Maryland (Prashanth Bhat, Alyson Farzad-Phillips, Morgan Hess, Nora Murphy, Claudia Serrano Rico, Kyle Stephan, Gareth Williams) demonstrated that 2016 campaign ads represented a referendum on the character of the candidates. Both campaigns used fear and anger appeals to assault the character of their opponents, elevating the anxiety and cynicism surrounding the campaign. Through negative character attacks, both campaigns promoted the message that neither candidate was fit to lead. Based on their report, researchers argued that character issues could inhibit the ability of President Trump to govern a divided electorate.
Allan Louden and Ryan Wolfe (Wake Forest University) argued that the 2016 presidential cycle was distinguished for the centrality of character assassination. During the election, the notion of character played a multi-dimensional role in campaign advertising. While venomous ads have appeared in most election cycles, 2016 was surprising not only for the quantity of character spots, but also for the display of personal viciousness. Advertising spots were mixtures of issue and image where character attacks against Clinton emphasized integrity and those deployed against Trump implied shortfalls in leadership and capacity. Even as political spots were plentiful they often amplified messaging in social media and saturation reporting.
Colleen Kelley (Penn State Behrend) attributes a rhetorically sophisticated program of digital character assassination against Hillary Clinton as a significant reason for Donald Trump’s win in the 2016 American presidential election. Trump inflicted damage through a discourse of “unfelt cuts” as illustrated by the use of paralipsis, a rhetorical device which allowed the Republican candidate to repeatedly make false accusations and spread false rumors without fear of consequences. Ultimately, this assault was so effective that Trump digitally transformed the reputation of Clinton, a woman who had initially been configured as one of the most qualified presidential candidates in modern history, into one of the most loathed.
Thomas McCloskey (University of Maryland) addressed the issue of authenticity as a critical element of nationalism and character in American public address. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump skillfully used negative media to destroy public perceptions of each other's character. Both candidates were successful. By election day, the American public had to choose between a racist, unqualified sexual predator and a lying criminal who belonged in prison. Clinton’s rhetorical strategy relied on a belief that the public frustration with the character of both candidates was temporary and would pass when voters picked their president. Conversely, Trump’s rhetoric suggested a belief that character would not return as a determinant for president any time soon. Thus, Trump’s strategy was to abandon character altogether and instead focus entirely on being authentic, even if that meant being authentically terrible. McCloskey concludes that political leaders who can establish authenticity, especially against institutions and candidates perceived as lacking authenticity, are better political candidates.
Michael Cornfield (George Washington University) demonstrated the power of Twitter hashtags in political campaigning. The use of “Crooked Hillary” pejoratively employed in Trump’s campaign rapidly became a meme. The hashtagged version #CrookedHillary was posted on Twitter alone 5.8 million times between its debut and the election. The phrase triggered a popular response, “Lock her up,” chanted at rallies and posted with a hashtag 1.1 million times. The party conventions and televised debates marked spikes in the number of tweets posted and shared with these phrases in them. Thus, Twitter can become a dangerous CA tool that should be studied in relation to semantic and environmental contexts. In addition, researchers should further examine the use of phrase in campaign tactics intended to encourage, tolerate, counter, condemn, change the subject in relation to voter mobilization and demobilization strategies.
Leslie Reynard (Washburn University) addressed the role of the tabloid press during the election. During the campaign, mainstream media characterized Donald Trump as a joke, a fluke, and a Clinton ticket to the White House. However, many pollsters, pundits, and professional experts often failed to analyze the election within the context of recent global trends that could be replicated in the United States. At the same time, the “surprise” election outcome came as no surprise to tabloid readers. A general erosion of trust in the government and democratic process provided fertile ground for Trump’s extended argumentum ad hominem against all of his opponents. Tabloid press such as the National Enquirer supported the Trump candidacy via political features that were heavy on rhetorical cues to trigger heuristic /peripheral processing. These strategies included repetition of slogans, negative-halo linkages to demonize individuals and groups opposed to Trump, and implicit, vague generalizations. Strongly contributing to the election's outcome, the extremely negative tone of the campaign and concurrent publications in the tabloid press caused many to vote against rather than for. This leads to a conclusion that a more effective press would abandon earlier incarnations as “watchdog” or “lapdog” and, rather, be harnessed as a “service dog” press that might lead the American electorate away from dangers to democracy that became evident in the presidential election of 2016.
Leticia Bode (Georgetown University) argued that political comedy plays a significant role in influencing modern politics as it provides positive and negative information about political candidates. As political comedy has become more important as a force in the modern media environment, remediation of political comedy has also increased. Specifically, a common way for people to see political comedy is via the distribution online of shows originally aired on television, often broken into clips and shared on social media. Thus, socially approved exercises in personal ridicule multiplied through social media can potentially change who sees political comedy, reinforce negative stereotypes first appearing in news accounts, and alter public perceptions of character assassination.
S. Robert Lichter (George Mason University), Stephen Farnsworth (University of Mary Washington)and Deanne Canieso (George Mason University) argued thattabloid journalism and television entertainment have normalized personal ridicule in political discourse. Political comedy plays a major role in influencing evaluations of modern presidential politics, not only by means of candidate appearances, but also in terms of jokes made about (or at the expense of) presidential candidates. Focusing on the references to the two major party presidential candidates in 2016, the authors argue that political comedy becomes an important aspect of character assassination in the political realm. Late night hosts have emerged as a new element of a political culture that emphasizes personal ridicule and is a breeding ground for intemperate or unjustified personal attacks.
Lea Diaz (Murcia State University, Spain) addressed the ethics and limitations to negative advertising based on her reflection of the 2016 U.S. election. Three important questions were posed in this relationship. First, do citizens really need to know all negative information aired during the campaign? Also, if some accusations were justified or convenient, could they have been stated in a less harmful way? Finally, what is to be done to bring back ethics and encourage civil behavior in the political discourse to strengthen and revitalize democracy?
Character Assassination as Institutional Mechanism
State-run character assassination should be addressed in the context of a specific political regime and its monopoly on using violence. Authoritarian and totalitarian governments use CA to instigate public reaction against dissenting voices or promote the state ideology. However, various forms of CA can also co-exist within democratic environments and be conveniently employed against domestic or foreign opponents. Character assassination against other nations can be used by politicians as part of their long-term communication strategy to delegitimize certain public policies or initiatives.
David Brandenberger (University of Richmond) challenged the assumption that the USSR was an efficient, Big Brother-like communications monolith with a case study on Soviet media coverage during the quintessential totalitarian moment: the 1936-1938 Great Terror. His presentation called into question scholarship claiming the Stalinist system was an efficient, competent propaganda state by conducting a comparative analysis of official press communiqués during the purge trials. This research revealed Soviet propaganda and character assassination during the Terror to have been strikingly inconsistent and ad hoc. Although such findings ought not call into question the degree to which the Great Terror itself was planned, they do suggest that the prototypical propaganda state was much less powerful and proactive than often assumed.
Maureen C. Minielli (City University of New York) examined how the Nixon administration addressed CA during Nixon’s first presidential term, based on analysis of numerous White House documents. Minielli argues that the Nixon administration was preoccupied by various CA attacks from entities that included the media and domestic and foreign political opponents, and responded in kind through an extensive surrogate system as well as enacting systems for media rewards and punishments. Her analysis suggests presidential CA needs to dually examine the office of the presidency as well as its occupant, and to carefully consider the White House’s numerous response mechanisms that historical document analysis can expose.
Martina Klicperova (Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic) focused on the ultimate cases of character assassination, show trials. Show trials tend to have attributes of terror, such as an arbitrary selection of an innocent victim and a frightening level of violence. They typically follow a screenplay elaborated in advance which progresses from revealing the victim, his/her public shaming, forced public confession, predetermined verdict, and finally a sentence, all widely publicized to meet political goals of the initiators. The show trials represent the ultimate CA because they tend to (a) drive the victims to self-destruct their own character before they are executed; and (b) harm or assassinate the character of a wide public. The first well documented show trials were staged by the Catholic Inquisition. Modern show trials were staged by the Soviet Communist Party both in Russia and its satellites. Public trials under democratic regimes are sometimes labeled as “(pseudo-)show trials” (e.g., the Scopes monkey trial, Nuremberg process, or Saddam Hussein trial). To what degree they lack defining show trial features is a matter of discussion.
Mikhail Nemtsev (Independent Researcher) discussed how the Russian state’ s media strategy against protest activist group Pussy Riot used an argumentum ad populum ("appeal to the people") after their situationist-style guerrilla performance at Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow. The general Russian public seemed to respond to the portrayal of Pussy Riot through the prism of state-supported conspiracy theory as the threat posed by the West’s moral nihilism, undermining the “Orthodox majority” represented as the core of the Russian nation. The state campaign also used numerous references to provocative art performances by art group Voina known for "aggravating moral circumstance" in the eyes of the conservative public. In particular, a notorious performance by Voina in St. Petersburg, in which a woman stole a chicken from a supermarket by stuffing it in her vagina, was often cited by attackers of Pussy Riot. However, there is no evidence that members of Moscow-based Pussy Riot participated in this action. Thus, character assassination campaigns in authoritarian societies often appeal to traditional norms, beliefs, and values of the general public to ignite social judgment against dissenting voices.
Neofytos Aspriadis (University of Piraeus, Greece), Emmanuel Takas (Panteion University, Greece), N. Athanasios Samaras, (University of Piraeus, Greece) explored the use of character assassination campaigns by governmental officials of a country against another country. The research examined the case of Greece and Germany during the re-negotiation of the Greek rescue plan-memorandum in the Euro-group from February until June 2015. Specifically, the discourse of Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany's Federal Minister of Finance, contained the intentional use of demonization and blaming to construct a specific image of Greece and its political leader, and to shape public attitudes from the perspective of the European Union political elite. This research demonstrates how political leaders and governments can be associated with the state and the entire nation through personification theory. Also, personal attributes of political leaders may affect the image of the country. This shows how a character assassination campaign can function as antagonisms between nation-states. Finally, character attacks against other nations can be used by politicians as part of their long-term communication strategy to delegitimize certain political or diplomatic positions or public policies.
Athanasios Samaras (University of Piraeus, Greece), and Kolovos Kyriakos (Open University of Cyprus) argued that ad hominem attacks played an important role in both the Grexit and Brexit campaigns. The single parliamentary discussions in Greece used double the number of ad hominem attacks than the 24 parliamentary discussions in the UK. In the UK, the majority of the ad hominem arguments were employed in parliamentary discussions after the referendum by the Leave campaign. The results of this project contribute to the identification of the rhetorical topoi that European disintegration produces for the national party systems.
Labeling and Naming in International and Local Politics
Dangers exist in erroneous or decontextualized historical analogies like the comparisons being drawn between contemporary leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.S. President Donald Trump and French National Front President Marine Le Pen, and fascist dictators like Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. First, it has foreign policy implications when the country’s image is damaged through labeling and fallacious historical reference. Second, linking Putin with Hitler and Stalin creates an error in logical reasoning by merging three different ideologies together. In addition, it is contextually inaccurate to compare unpopular political leaders and fascist dictatorships given the opposing ideologies of communism, fascism, and the current “populist” leaders in Europe and the United States. It is also culturally and historically insensitive to World War II veterans, Holocaust survivors, or the countries who were annihilated by fascism. Continuous labeling practices of political leaders and groups are counterproductive when overused.
Greg Simons (Uppsala U, Swedish Defense U, Sweden) argued that labeling and vilification become popular themes in media portrayals of national leaders in the contemporary Western global script for international relations. International media and political leaders often exploit the image of super villains, and attribute different alleged nefarious acts against humanity, civilization and the global order to them. For example, Russian President Vladimir Putin is often compared to Hitler and Stalin in the West, a comparison which is also used in character attacks against other political leaders like Donald Trump through a “guilt by association” approach. This involves characterizations of Putin as a benchmark of negative political figures, which can be used to try and destroy the brands and political reputations of other actors. The mere association with him, even by use of assertion, can potentially force a political candidate to change his stance or weaken his chances in competitive political environments. At the same time, the use of Putin against the reputation of Trump reduces the overall impact of CA when both leaders have charismatic personalities and strong personal brands. Also, when Donald Trump is portrayed as a fascist with parallels made both to Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Putin, it induces a very imprecise comparison that hampers the CA attack.
Marlene Laruelle (George Washington U) argued that the emergence and structuring of a Reductio ad Hitlerum, or more generally an accusation of “fascism,” became one of the most fascinating features of this ongoing demonization of the enemy since the mid-2000s in Russian as well as in American and European media. In order to delegitimize critical views coming from the other side, fascism has become an insulting label that often bears no connection to the actual ideological positions of the individuals being accused. At the same time, Reductio ad Fascism means remarkably different things in Russia as opposed to in the West. In the West, it seeks to compare Putin to Hitler, and thus equate Fascism/National Socialism with Communism and Putin’s regime. In Russia, Reductio ad Fascism helps the regime to maintain social and cultural consensus around the notion of the Soviet Union’s critical role in defeating fascism in Europe. Reductio ad Fascism also became a way of expressing inter-state tensions, for instance between post-coup Turkey and several European countries. Thus, we can see how an old concept has been revived in new European and U.S. “populism.”
Marta Lukacovic (Furman University) and Emina Herovic (University of Maryland) discussed how the case of the rise of Ludova Strana Nase Slovensko – Kotleba (LSNS), a radical right-wing party in Slovakia, demonstrates that character assassination practices against a group might actually be counterproductive when over-used. The constant labeling of LSNS as a “fascist” and “Nazi” organization has contributed to the devaluation of the seriousness of such accusations on the Slovak political scene. Even associated with extremism and neo-Nazism in Slovakia, the party’s popularity is nonetheless exponentially growing. Its image remains immune to attacks from mainstream politicians, as Kotleba and his party were successful at averting the effects of numerous CA attempts. First, LSNS-Kotleba is successful at spreading its message where voters congregate and articulating a consistent ideology. Their appeals to broadly understood security (including national safety, sovereignty, and cultural identity) provide a persuasive platform for far-right parties. Furthermore, LSNS employs “counter-character assassination attacks” against government officials by highlighting corruption, cronyism, and other pertinent and common issues. LSNS effectively utilizes social media and other digital platforms to disseminate its messages to the supporters. As a result, the party has gained the trust of voters even from the regions where Nazi forces committed atrocities during WWII.
Information Warfare, Propaganda and Framing Issues
There is little research exploring the use of CA in contemporary information warfare and propaganda campaigns. CA against countries is executed through personification when a symbolic personality becomes a crucial component of propaganda messaging. International intelligence services often use comparable defamation practices to suppress dissenting voices and whistle blowers at home and abroad to protect the regime. In the aftermath of terrorist attacks, mass media may elicit emotional reactions from the public, making it easier for mediated character attacks to become acceptable. A more diverse media sphere provides a more elaborate rhetorical platform for argumentation against media efforts from ISIS supporting its vision of state autonomy and representation of Islam.
Emily Blout (American University) argued that the current view of Western models of propaganda is limited in the context of new media wars. Blout suggested the U.S. has been limited in its ability to influence international affairs in contemporary conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan due to expending very little effort to explore contemporary forms of propaganda. Primarily, many forms of traditional propaganda, such as disinformation campaigns, have been adopted into the new digital environment, but have as yet been insufficiently studied by scholars and practitioners. Moreover, despite its immediate relevance and topicality, the word propaganda is seldom used in American political discourse. Rather than using new terms like “fake news” or “alternative facts,” some of the “news” information disseminated during the 2016 U.S. election and circulated in the U.S. today might be more accurately called “propaganda” and studied accordingly.
Vasily Gatov (University of Southern California) argued that CA campaigns run by international governments should be studied in the context of a specific political environment and an ideology propagated by the regime. Effective state propaganda often requires a conflict based on ideological opposition or adversarial partnership between competing governments. An adversary is best represented through personification when a symbolic personality becomes a crucial component of propaganda messaging. Ideological resistance often employs subversive ideas/ideologies (e.g., "Russian Scare," McCarthyism, witch hunts, alternative faiths in China, etc.) that oppose the influence of the rivalry indoctrination. In international warfare ideologists may not pursue direct "conflict" with a real adversary, but refer to "bad friendship and alliances" that are similar to interpersonal relationships. Gatov compared the ideological map of the USSR vs. post-Soviet Russia in several categories. He attributed the Russian national idea to the personality of its President Vladimir Putin by referring to Alexander Wendt's idea of “state as person” in international relations. According to him, Vladimir Putin follows an “ideology of negation,” which is best understood as a refusal to recognize others' positive ideas and agendas. Character assassination strategies are thus incorporated into strategic efforts to keep the political base aligned and united without articulating consistent and sustainable ideological goals. This strategy is premised on equivocal communication, ambiguous objectives and political uncertainty, where the government agenda is centered around repeated deliberations of foreign interferences and identifying real and potential adversaries of Russia.
Elizaveta Egorova (Political Profiler) supported the argument of Russia’s communication strategy as the ideology of negation which is implemented in numerous media campaigns using negative framing to address international affairs and political adversaries. Egorova argued that Russia’s negative campaign against NATO is unique because of a variety of methods used to change the perception of the alliance within and outside of the Russian Federation. The information warfare methods include various forms of character assassination on the Internet, including disinformation campaigns, hired bloggers, and paid trolls in social networks and forums. It combines classical propaganda methods with modern methods of Internet communication, with a big focus on visualization and storytelling.
Irina Tsukerman (Independent Researcher) argues that the relationship between the Soviet/post-Soviet and Iranian intelligence services is insufficiently studied in the West due to the lack of relevant translation from Farsi, and few declassified materials of the Soviet/Russian intelligence. Throughout history, both intelligence services have used similar discrediting practices, including infiltrating human rights organizations to suppress dissenting voices abroad. Specifically, these methods were applied to immigrants who fled their countries and tried to expose the truth about both regimes. Tsukerman argues that the use of CA in information warfare by authoritarian and totalitarian regimes is more about ideological unity than ideological purity. These regimes are more concerned with controlling dissenting voices and whistleblowers, than trying to raise and support true ideologues and political believers at home.
Olga Logunova (Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia) addressed the effect of framing messages about Islam in Russian and American newspapers after major terrorist attacks. Both the Russian and American media portrayed Islam through the frame of “radical Islamism.” "Radical Islam" is often associated with migrants, as the migration issue is discussed more often than other perceived causes of the tragic event. Islamic terrorism is differently covered in U.S. and Russian newspapers. Russian media have a more monotonous agenda: terror, fear, and danger associated with Islam. American media have a broader range of discussed topics. Both American and Russian media believe the main reason for terrorist attacks are the activities of ISIS, as well as the influence of Islamic centers. By increasing the amount of emotional influence in the news, mass media elicit specific emotional reactions, making it easier for mediated character attacks to become acceptable.
Sergey Davydov (Higher School of Economics, Moscow) argued that the image of ISIS in the contemporary media is a complex and controversial transnational construct. It has been formed on an intersection of traditional and modern frames resulting from information efforts made by both the Islamic State and the antiterrorist coalition states. Mass media frames dedicated to ISIS generally support traditional frames about Islamic terrorism that have been in use over the last several years. Publications covering ISIS activities mostly include materials reflecting on the ISIS phenomenon, but show little interest the ISIS organizational structure, its origins, etc. At the same time, the international portrayal of ISIS is more diverse due to difference between discourse in official publications and independent mass media. Russian mass media frame ISIS almost identically. Due to the heterogeneous media environment, the United States and other Western countries offer a more complex/varied representation of ISIS.
The Issues of Public Opinion and Social Judgment
An analysis of a victim’s perceived agency and social evaluation helps us to better understand why some reputational attacks are successful while others receive contempt despite the truthfulness of their claims. Likewise, it helps us understand why some victims receive public support in CA campaigns while others receive disdain. Unequal public reactions may be, in part, based on gender stereotypes. The targets of character attacks are vulnerable in situations when the public is suspicious of any ambiguous or equivocal behavior of the target. In India, the public is fond of character-centered political marketing campaigns, except when they become too invasive.
Farah Latif (George Mason University) argued that character attacks in the social media against women should be examined through the lenses of the typology of victims suggested by Dunn (2004), including precipitating victim, heroic victim, stigmatized victim, and an ideal victim. This classification represents the social construction of victimization and agency resulting in either negative or positive social support for a female victim. Latif hypothesized that similar typologies of attackers may also exist. Further, she argued that the simultaneous social evaluation of victims and attackers determine whether they receive negative or positive social support and whether a character attack is successful. An analysis of a victim’s perceived agency and social evaluation helps us to better understand why some reputational attacks are successful and considered persuasive while others receive contempt despite the truthfulness of their claims. Moreover, by analyzing how the mass media portrays the social support for some victims, researchers will be able to understand further how media portrayals of the attack targets contribute to the social construction of their victimhood and subsequent social support for them in the long run.
Leelannee K. Malin (Howard University) raised the issue of social judgment based on stereotyping and unequal perception of gender roles. With the application of expectancy violation theory to the role that clothing and stereotypes play on teacher credibility, Malin explored how a proud selfie photograph can either help earn public recognition, or be transformed into a campaign of character assassination. Atlanta elementary school teacher’s aide Patrice Brown, better known as #TeacherBae, became an overnight Internet sensation after social media posts of her daily classroom selfie featuring her daily hairstyle and wardrobe choice went viral. Irvin Randle, Houston elementary school teacher, better known as #MrStealYourGrandma, gained the same notoriety when a photo collage of his physically fit and stylish looks were shared on Twitter. While Randle began to receive offers for modeling contracts, social media users lashed out at and about Brown, questioning her teaching credentials, criticizing her professionalism and critiquing her body type. The comparison of social media commentary about both cases illustrated the double standard of intellect and clothing expectations of teachers based on gender.
Rod Carveth (Morgan State University) argued that public opinion can be capricious. It can be easily swayed by critics in the media, as well as the lack of proper crisis communication skills of the attack target. Elizabeth Holmes, an American entrepreneur and inventor once compared to Steve Jobs, used to grace the covers of business magazines such as Fortune. She claimed that her company, Theranos, had invented a new and cheaper way for blood testing. An investigative report by John Carreyrou of the Wall Street Journal revealed, however, that this technology didn’t work. Shortly thereafter, federal regulators launched their own investigation of Theranos, the results of which at the end of 2016 led the withdrawal of the certification of the Theranos lab in Silicon Valley. The press, which had once been so fawning in its coverage of Holmes, now subjected her to withering attacks. In response to serious amounting problems, Holmes’ behavior appeared secretive and defensive. Holmes chose to stonewall, attack her critics, and make fun of their technical knowledge instead of looking for constructive ways to manage this crisis. The targets of character attacks become more vulnerable in situations when the public is suspicious of deception, especially when it might cost people their health. Also, the public is more critical of celebrities who used to be role models, but appear to be involved in some scheme to rip off the public. This case proves the importance of good crisis communication in situations when critics call for clarity.
Kanwalpreet Kaur (D.A.V. College, Chandigarh, India) demonstrated an increase in incivility, character attacks, and satire in the election in Punjab, the heart of India’s Sikh community. Candidates adopt new and innovative means to attract voters and take on opponents. Virtual election campaigns involved not just negative advertising, but also misinformation and parodies of popular songs or movies. For example, in the battle of political candidates the satire videos often drive negativity in social media. Political candidates record videos where they mock their opponents, or play hero roles beating up villains. Politicians also hire singers in the booming Punjabi music industry to support their parties through campaign songs. Not all young voters are impressed with the virtual election campaign, saying that they are constantly bombarded by campaign videos and spoofs when expecting messages from parents or friends or while driving.
Responding to Character Assassination
There are multiple factors that determine the effectiveness of reputation management. Charisma and personal values of the CEOs often become antecedents that influence the outcomes of CA attempts. Social capital in the field of corporate communications is an important safeguard against reputational attacks during a crisis. Government agencies should explore a conceptual framework designed to interrupt a chosen attack path and influence adversary decisions and actions. Image repair strategies are limited in their ability to help nonprofits resurrect their image in the wake of a financial scandal. One way to counter misinformation and character attacks is through pre-emptive inoculation and image prepare strategies.
Jens Seiffert-Brockmann (University of Vienna, Austria) explored character assassination in the context of corporate communication. The study results suggest character attacks mostly focusing on a CEO’s integrity and negative attributions of integrity are related to a CEO being forced to quit. Positive attributions of charisma seem to bolster a CEO’s position, making him or her less prone to attempts of character assassination. Those CEOs who were positively attributed with charisma were more likely to stay in office during a crisis. Furthermore, personal values are under more intense public scrutiny when the CEO in question had to leave his or her office. Thus, it appears that certain character traits and personal values of the CEOs become antecedents that influence the outcomes of CA attempts.
Tyler Johnson (University of Oklahoma) and Haley Murphy (Oklahoma State University) examined how individuals perceive nonprofits facing accusations of fiscal malfeasance (inefficient use of donations and extravagant CEO pay and perks). In addition, their study explored the potential for said nonprofits to recover from such claims by using the image repair strategies of apologizing and corrective action (in this case, firing the CEO). The scholars argued that accusations of fiscal malfeasance have massive effects on individuals’ assessments of a nonprofit (including competence, honesty, trust, judgment, morality, leadership, shared values, and caring). Accusations involving inefficient use of donations are generally more damaging than accusations of extravagant CEO pay and perks. Image repair strategies may help some nonprofits resurrect their image in the wake of a financial scandal (for example, firing the CEO rebuilds some positive feelings toward the scandalized nonprofit). However, in most cases, image repair strategies fail to undo any of this damage, and in rare cases seem to backfire.
Tim Tinker (Atlas Research) discussed how government agencies can apply a conceptual framework for Adversary-Based Communications (A-B-C) to interrupt a chosen attack path and influence adversary decisions and actions. Strategically, this holistic approach is used for assessing and communicating detailed and organized responses to each element in adversary-targeted strategies and messages – messenger, media and mind-set. Tactically, it involves developing and disseminating effective adversary-targeted messaging that leverages audiences—allies, antagonists, and ambivalents. Government agencies can create effective adversary-targeted messaging for these audiences using the 3 C’s: context, content, and connection. A-B-C strategies and tactics may be applied to a variety of scenarios including cyberterrorism. For example, by focusing on hacker groups, messaging tactics might attempt to create a wedge between hacktivists who are politically motivated, but whose only intent is to disrupt rather than to inflict bodily or psychological harm, and cyberterrorist sympathizers who would use the same methods without moral restraint. The A-B-C strategy and methods should be integrated with broader communications and operational strategies and with law enforcement, intelligence gathering, homeland security, and counter-terrorism efforts.
John Cook (George Mason University), addressed the issue of misinformation through campaigns about climate change, which include character attacks on the scientific community. The purpose of climate misinformation is to cast doubt on climate science to erode support for climate mitigation policies. Confusing the public about the level of scientific agreement among climate scientists has been a key strategy. An effective way to counter misinformation, whether it be scientific arguments or attacks on scientists, is through pre-emptive inoculation. This is achieved by exposing people to a "weak form of the misinformation," or explaining the techniques that misinformation uses to distort the facts.
Josh Compton (Dartmouth College) introduced a framework for combining existing scholarship in image repair, inoculation theory, and character assassination. He offered a concentrated look at inoculation theory and character assassination, with special attention to 1) how inoculation might be used to protect against character assassination; and 2) how inoculation might function as character assassination—both implicitly (i.e., source derogation effects of conventional inoculation treatments) and explicitly (i.e., attacks made on a source’s motives). He also proposed looking at character assassination through the lens of image prepare, an emerging model that attempts to synthesize work in image repair and inoculation theory.