Character Assassination as a discipline is very closely related to the study of propaganda. Keep that in mind as you read through the techniques below.
Table of Contents
The first step in any character attack is to research the audience. Politicians do this with polls. Polls help them understand the values and sentiments of the country. Then politicians find ways to twist the public perception of their opponent into a weakness. Similarly character attacks often require first finding fertile soil. This means character attacks work best when there are many people who already harbor some levels of negative emotion towards the person. This could be hate, dislike, distrust, jealousy, bitterness, or resentment. Victims tend to be people who need support or approval for their position. Another characteristic of a victim is that they typically have some sort of power or status that makes them worthwhile to attack. Victims also tend to represent a social cause, ideology, or movement.
The second step is developing a network. The character assassinator needs support to increase likelihood of a successful campaign. Developing relationships and dependencies with people that hold social power can be quite useful. These relationships allow the attacker to disseminate information with fewer consequences and resistance. The assassinator must also frame themselves as reasonable and credible for the attack to work well.
Next the character assassination begins. The person uses the vulnerabilities to directly and indirectly attack the target. This can be anything from pushing gossip to direct insults and joke making. Character attacks seek sway the undecided, create uncertainty, or keep people from leaving their group.
Finally the target begins to take on the position of social scapegoat. The scapegoat is a word used to describe someone who takes the blame for a situation. A single banker could be the scapegoat for Wall Street corruption. It allows people to focus their negative thoughts and feelings, and expel them. Check out this post on the rhetoric of polarization.
Types Of Attacks
There are multiple types of character assassination attacks (page 18). Spontaneous or drive by character attacks have no premeditated aspect. One example includes two professors accusing another of plagiarism by posting online. This professor was forced to resign despite the fact that there was no evidence. The case was later reversed but the smear on the man’s reputation came just from a simple debate between the three. Another type is a Postmortem attack. This type seeks to exaggerate a person’s problems when they are no longer around to defend themselves. Typically this is used to discredit the originator or primary figure of a popular cause. The more common type of attack is the Live attack. The live attack takes place currently and is typically planned out before.
The first 7 techniques are supported categories drawn from scientific character assassination literature. The second group of techniques listed after 7 are ones we have found effective or prevalent enough to point out. They fall under one of the 7 categories but it is more helpful to address them specifically.
- Anonymous lies. Anonymous lies are hard to defeat since people often better remember the accusation, but not the discovery that the accusation was false.
- Misquoting. Misquotes take what someone said out of context. It works because it has the appearance of legitimacy.
- Silencing. This seeks to erase a person’s memory from the collective mind. Soviets used this with past prime minsters.
- Vandalism. Vandalizing a person’s symbol or property chips away at the perception of their power.
- Name calling. Closely related to branding, this is a technique used to minimize or trivialize a person’s actions and character. For example, you might call someone named Dick Durbin, “Little Dick Durbin.”
- Mental illness accusations. Why would you take a crazy person seriously?
- Sexual deviance accusations. These work best when the accusation is contrary to public morals.
More techniques (often stemming from and closely linked to propaganda techniques):
- The wedge technique. The wedge technique is used to create problems between people. If you know two people disagree on a subject, simply bring up the subject to create a problem. This is only character assassination if the topic and discussion degrades one person’s image.
- Ad hominem attack, or attacking the person’s image or character instead of the actual argument. Think branding with name calling or negative labeling (they are lazy). Ad hominem attacks can include: appeals to bad motive, circumstantial evidence, quilt by negative or out group association, and poisoning the well (giving out bad information on the person before they speak).
- Bandwagon effect seeks to make the audience join one side because that side’s victory is inevitable. Use language like victory, defeat, and other words to refer to your side and the enemy.
- Straw man creates a defeatable version of the opponent’s argument to make them seem childish, uneducated, and incorrect. This involves cherry picking where you inordinately focus on one aspect of a person’s argument that has less support or appears contrary to the group’s values.
- Repetition. Humans can be persuaded by things they hear over and over again.
- Muddying the water. This technique draws on “tu quoque” fallacy. By drawing out your opponent’s similar mistakes, you muddy the water and make it more difficult to see one side as the correct winner. This is very useful when defending yourself from character assassination.
One article sought to distinguish two ways to categorize attacks.
- Methods for increasing the target’s perceived responsibility for the act. This includes: showing that the accused committed the act in the past, showing the accused planned the act, showing they knew the consequences, and showing that they benefited from the attack.
- Methods for increasing the perceived offensiveness of the act. Including: illustrating the extend of the damage caused, showing how the negative effects persist, showing the effects on the audience, showing that the accuser’s deeds were inconsistent, portraying the victim as innocent or helpless, convincing people the attacker had an obligation to protect the victim, presenting victims as honorable or noble, labeling the act in an increasingly negative way, and finally linking the act with pernicious ideology or values.
A new individual moves into your neighborhood. They develop a disliking for someone. The new individual begins connecting with the people who have more social power or influence. They might even pretend to be a friend to the person they dislike. The new individual then begins spreading pernicious rumors that degrade the target’s reputation. Often these rumors have some small basis in reality to give them the appearance of credibility. Eventually the group’s perception changes and the person begins the movement to the social scapegoat position.
Workplace character assassination is also common. Often coworkers will exaggerate or minimize mistakes of their competitors when in the presence of decision makers. This more mild version of character assassination serves to increase their chances at promotion.
Character assassination is widely prevalent in politics. Frequently people running for the same senate seat will use external news organizations to bring up and publicize their competitor’s past mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes are either fictitious or irrelevant to the discussion, but the purpose is to simply smear the rival.
See more examples here.