Glossary of terms related to Character Assassination


Created by Eric Shiraev, Sergei Samoilenko, Jennifer Keohane and Martijn Icks

Ad hominem

A rhetorical assault that targets an opponent’s personality, appearance or other personal attributes rather than addressing the argument he or she is advocating. Ad hominem attacks always occur in the context of a debate. There are multiple types of ad hominem attacks: 1) abusive-attacking someone’s character; 2) circumstantial-charging inconsistency between behaviors and professed ideals; 3) bias-pointing out vested interest in outcome; 4) poisoning the well-contaminating judgment in advance; 5) tu quoque-“you too have done these bad things that you accuse me of”; 6) guilt by association-asserting similarity between the opponent and someone widely hated.

Black legend

A version of the history of a country or regime that emphasizes its alleged atrocities and deliberately places it in a negative light. Usually refers to the leyendra negra, the black legend against the Spanish Empire by its colonial rivals (the Dutch and the English) in the sixteenth century.

Black PR

Black PR was introduced to Russian politics in the 1990s as one of the most potent smear campaign tools by political marketing specialists. Unlike negative advertising used in Western politics, “black PR” is mostly known for using kompromat or compromising materials about politicians and other public figures. Such materials are used for various purposes, including creating negative publicity, blackmailing, or ensuring loyalty.


An attack that aims to damage the reputation of an individual, group or organization. It is thus a broader term than character attack, which only concerns assaults on a particular person. In many countries, calumny constitutes a punishable offense, although usually only if the allegations are false. Sometimes a distinction is made between slander, calumny in spoken form, and libel, calumny in print.


Character refers to the moral features of an individual’s behavior and experience. These features usually stand for individual traits associated with ethical, appropriate, desirable, or socially approved behavior and values. The term “character” in American social sciences and psychology has acquired its distinct meaning in the 1920s. Earlier in the century, professionals used the terms character, personality, and temperament almost interchangeably. Gradually, temperament was commonly and increasingly associated with biological, genetic factors. Personality, which has become a field of research in psychology, is a stable set of behavioral and experiential characteristics of an individual. The term character refers to individuals, but not to countries, social groups, corporations or other collective entities.

Character assassination

The deliberate destruction of an individual’s reputation. Character assassination is the result of successful character attacks. The word can also be used to refer to the process of reputation-destruction.

Character attack

A deliberate assault on an individual’s reputation. Character attacks can be verbal (e.g. speeches, insults) or non-verbal (e.g. cartoons). Contrary to insults, character attacks are by definition public in nature. They can be launched for a variety of reasons, including the removal of a political rival or the discrediting of a political or religious ideology. When character attacks are successful, they result in character assassination.

Character breaking

The process of destroying the core of someone’s character, as opposed to a more superficial tarnishing of the victim’s reputation.

Character suicide

The phenomenon of an individual deliberately destroying his or her own reputation.

Cheap shot

A brief and apparently spontaneous character attack that chiefly aims to annoy and distract the victim


A twisted version of an individual or group’s history, created to damage their reputation. Counterhistories concede basic facts from the original, but put a negative spin on positive elements. The term was first introduced by Amos Funkenstein. A famous example is the Toldoth Yeshu, a Jewish “antigospel” that depicts Jesus as a conman-magician rather than as the miracle-working Son of God.


The repeated harassment of an individual in an online environment.


The vocalization of perceived flaws in an individual, group, product or action. Criticism can be well-intentioned (constructive) or malicious (destructive).


See calumny.


The denial of basic human qualities to an individual or group. Victims of dehumanization are denied a personal identity and a place in the community. This severely reduces their capacity to generate empathy in others.


Painting an individual, group or institution as evil and malicious.

Demonization of the enemy

The creation of an enemy image in state propaganda, based on the notion that the “enemy” has evil intentions and is set on attacking or even destroying the nation and values of the target audience. This technique is often employed to rally the population against another country in times of war, although the “enemy” can also be claimed to lurk within one’s borders, as in the case of the Red Scare in the US.


One of Aristotle’s three appeals, ethos refers to character or credibility. Classical theorists of rhetoric have disagreed about whether ethos refers to the actual character of the orator or the impression that the speaker leaves on the audience.

Enemy image

The depiction of an entire nation or ethnic group in hostile terms. Enemy images are often created and employed in war propaganda and serve to identify an “enemy” whose values and interests are diametrically opposed to those of the target audience. See also demonization of the enemy.

Erasing from memory

The systematic deleting of information from printed and other sources. Usually employed by governments and typically occurs post-mortem.

Hate speech

Speech that deliberately incites hatred or even violence against a group or individual based on their race, gender, sexual orientation or other attributes. In many countries, hate speech constitutes a crime that is punishable by law.


A hostile remark targeted at a group or individual with the aim of damaging their self-esteem. Unlike character attacks, which seek to damage the victim publically, insults can occur in a private context.


A form of rhetoric with the express purpose of damaging someone’s reputation. In ancient rhetoric, invective was the opposite of panegyric (speech of praise).


The Russian term for compromising materials about a politician or other public figure. Such materials can be used to create negative publicity, for blackmail, or for ensuring loyalty. Kompromat can be acquired from various security services, or outright forged, and then publicized by paying off a journalist. Widespread use of kompromat has been one of the characteristic features of politics in Russia and other post-Soviet states.


The practice of associating an individual with a negative label, in the hope that this label will become permanently attached to the victim in the public sphere.


Calumny in the form of printed words or images. Under common law, libel is a punishable offense, but if the libelous words are true, it is not often punished.

Memory sanction

A punitive measure taken to damage or even completely erase the victim’s reputation in public memory, usually posthumously. The term was coined by Harriet Flower. See also post-mortem attack.


A common and surreptitious form of character assassination, which involves taking a phrase or sentence out of context, or even false attributing a quote to someone.


The activity of launching character attacks against an individual.


An attack that does not usually require providing factual proof. This is a form of portraying somebody simply as evil or bad. For example, in science, the charlatan label is often used to attack famous researchers.

Negative campaigning

The waging of a political or commercial campaign which is centered on negativity, criticisms, and the destruction of the opponent’s reputation.


A person who engages in character attacks.

Political rumoring

The spread of unverified information among a group of people for political purposes, such as damaging the reputation of an opponent. Because rumors come from an unknown source, perpetrators do not have to take responsibility for their allegations.

Post-mortem attack

A character attack against a deceased victim. Post-mortem attacks are often aimed to damage someone’s reputation in the historic record, i.e. for centuries to come.


Communication aimed at promoting a particular viewpoint or policy idea. Propaganda is often used to refer to communication circulated by a govenrment entity or political campaign. It is often assumed to be misleading and unethical.


The accusation of individuals or groups as being “reds”, i.e. harboring communist, socialist or anarchist sympathies. Red-baiting is prominent in the US and serves to destroy the victim’s reputation in the eyes of a public opposed to radical leftism.


A person’s standing in public opinion. The term partially overlaps with character, but whereas character is only concerned with a person’s moral features, reputation is more inclusive. For instance, someone can have a reputation as a good cook or a good scientist.


A deliberate and contemptuous exaggeration or distortion in a comical context.


The public exposure of an individual’s perceived shortcomings or misconduct in order to damage their reputation.

Short-term character attacks

Accusations about alleged or real single inappropriate acts, such as having an extramarital affair. Long term-character attacks require allegations about a person’s persistent pattern of deviant behavior.

Shooting the messenger

The practice of blaming the messenger for the bad news he or she brings, even though that person does not bear any responsibility for the message.


Preventing a living person from defending his or her character after it has been attacked.


In colloquial language, “slander” is often used to refer to defamatory speech in general, regardless of whether or not it is true. Legally, slander refers to calumny in the form of spoken words. Under common law, slander is a punishable offense. However, a common defense against prosecution for slander is that the words were true.


See mudslinging.


A (perceived) negative characteristic that sets an individual or group apart from the desired cultural norm. This can range from ethnicity and sexual orientation to physical attributes and personality traits. A stigma can also refer to a physical or material badge of shame that marks someone’s infamous status, e.g. the brand that was often burned in the skins of slaves


The attribution of a stigma to a group or individual.


Making false allegations against an individual under the pretense of revealing truth. The term is derived from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’s campaign against presidential candidate John Kerry during the 2004 US elections.


Destroying artifacts, symbols or images representing an individual and motivated by jealousy, prejudice, hatred, or a calculated plan to damage the individual’s reputation. Pictures of well-known individuals and public officials are frequently damaged or destroyed. George Washington’s portrait was defaced in 1781 at the Statehouse in Philadelphia when somebody broke into the building at night.


The individual who is targeted by character attacks.


The process of an individual being turned into a victim of crime, abuse, slander, or some other form of maltreatment.


The framing of an individual as an “evildoer” who is personally responsible for certain wrongs. The term can also be employed to collective entities such as nations or ethnic groups, e.g. the vilification of the Jews in Nazi Germany.


A large-scale persecution of people based on their ethnicity, political or religious convictions, or other personal attributes. Famous examples include the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, the burning of alleged “witches” in the early modern period and the hunt for Communists in the US under McCarthyism.

A technique used by the secret police (Stasi) in the GDR. Its goal was to deter individuals from political activity and to disrupt opposition movements by creating existential uncertainty. Wrecking people’s careers was a common method of Zersetzung. Among its victims were prominent dissidents such as Rudolf Bahro, Jürgen Fuchs and Robert Havemann.