The following is the first in a series of articles related to propaganda, disinformation, character assassination and social media. It is based loosely on a series of slides on the dark arts of disinformation generously shared on LinkedIn by Rand Waltzman.
Any user of social media or consumers of traditional media will be familiar with the invective, vitriol and sometimes outright propaganda that one encounters on a regular basis. This series will attempt to shine some light on the motivations and techniques of the various professionals and lay people who engage in activities designed to advance various ideological agendas.
What is character assassination?
Character assassination (CA) is the malicious and unjustified harming of a person’s good reputation and credibility. Speaking in a humorous sense, anyone who has attended high school will likely be familiar with this age old tactic and it’s damaging effects. CA can be achieved via a wide variety of means including: false accusations, rumours and manipulated information. CA occurs through character attacks, which can come in many forms. These can include, but are not limited to: spoken insults, pamphlets, social media posts, internet memes, and political campaign ads. Essentially, any means of human communication can be weaponized for the purposes of engaging in character assassination. CA encompasses an extremely damaging set of techniques and the damage sustained by it’s targets can last a lifetime. For some historical figures, the damage inflicted by CA campaigns has endured for centuries. The actual phrase “character assassination” came into common usage in the 1930s.
The goal of character assassination
The ultimate goal of CA is typically to damage the reputation and credibility of an individual (also groups and organisations) as a means of reducing their influence in society.
Anyone can be a target of CA. Commonly, character assassination is used in a concerted way to target people of influence. The can include:
- public officials
- political leaders
- faith leaders
- miscellaneous public figures
Character assassination happens through character attacks. A successful character attack will have a negative impact on the target and may result in them being rejected or losing influence and credibility in the spheres of public and private life where they are active. At a high level, character attacks will leverage information about a person’s private life, behaviour, values and identity. This information can then be used to:
- Make embarrassing intimate features of the target’s life public. It doesn’t particularly matter if the information is true or not. The important thing is for the information to be sensational, salacious and damaging
- Question achievements: did he/she really do something that good?
- Question and create doubt about the target’s good intentions: even if they did do something good, was it really done for the right reasons or merely for their own benefit?
- Alter or fabricate biographical details
- Use mockery, exaggeration, allegations, inuendo, lies, insinuation, slander, libel, etc to damage the moral standing of the target in the eyes of the public and personal circles.
- Davis, Jerome (1950). Character assassination. New York: Philosophical Library.
- Character Assassination: The Art of Defamation Throughout the Ages
- Icks, Martijn; Keohane, Jennifer; Samoilenko, Sergei; Shiraev, Eric (2017). “Character Assassination in Theory and Practice” (PDF).