By Sergei Samoilenko
This past Friday, Jennifer Keohane, Eric Shiraev and I participated in a panel on the topic of “Perspectives on Character Assassination at the Institute of World Politics in the historic red brick Marlatt Mansion just a few blocks from the White House. Our event was apparently “sold out” online, and we had a good number of people in the audience on Friday evening who came to learn about our research and its relevance to the practices of character attacks and defenses.
Interestingly, the institute’s main facility was built in 1908 by Dr. Charles Marlatt, an entomologist with the Department of Agriculture during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. One can still see the decorative wood and plaster carvings of insects, birds and animals throughout the main floor of the mansion. From 1973 to 1975 the Marlatt Mansion was owned by the government of the USSR, which used it to house the Soviet Embassy’s Office of the Commercial Counselor, as well as offices of the KGB. During that time it served as the temporary residence of Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev.
Jennifer launched the talk by outlining the goals of our research lab and providing a few brief case studies illustrating our interdisciplinary framework. We discussed the parameters of character and character as a matter of public opinion, discussed the role of communication, the attacker’s motive and choice of a strategy, the features of the target, the medium as a channel and the environment, the power of the audience, and the moral codes embedded in social norms and cultural traditions. In addition, we provided our own perspectives on character assassination as defined by rhetoric (Jennifer), public relations and crisis communication (me), and political psychology and history (Eric). In conclusion, Jennifer summarized what character assassination is, how it is refracted in different times and places, and why our research can provide an antidote to incivility and misinformation.
Our Q&A revealed a few interesting points that need to be addressed in our research.
Why do people believe an accusation even when it is not true?
Well, this is a million-dollar question. The classical Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle believed that the truth of a statement is determined by whether it accurately describes that world and corresponds with reality. In this day and age, our modern day reality has been shaped and split as a result of our fragmented presence in physical and virtual spaces. As the infamous “Pizzagate” case suggests, many falsehoods are the products of rumors and conspiracy theories coming from venues like online chat rooms, digital news shows and “gated” online communities. As a result, the process of “believing” can be viewed as the construction of individual perception of reality. In other words, a statement ‘this is true’ is frequently replaced by the expression ‘true for me’ to express the idea that each of us makes our own reality and that our beliefs constitute that reality. Thus, the Internet and social media have altered the very understanding of truth and shifted it to “truthiness.” This word was coined by Stephen Colbert in 2005 to describe America as being divided between two camps of people – those who “think with their head” and those who “know with their heart.”
What is the best way to counter character assassination?
During my presentation I referred to the case of Innocence of Muslims that is illustrative of how the world has become more complex. This is a case study of an online character attack on a religious figure that resulted in some serious reputational damage for the United States. A substandard YouTube video composed of hate speech and stereotypical clichés, produced as a prank by an amateur producer, went viral, fueled public outrage and caused a scandal at the highest level of international politics. The problem is that character assassination has become a systemic norm. Multiple networked groups and individual actors constantly incite the public to support their causes or mobilize against political regimes. There is no consensus on how to best respond to character assassination, since it comes in multiple shapes and forms. That being said, there are multiple factors that determine preventive strategies, including the ways to reincorporate ethical standards into public and political discourse and teaching people how to understand and evaluate media messages.
How do you measure the impact of character assassination?
Unlike an interpersonal insult, CA campaigns are designed to influence public opinion. Thus, the impact of character assassination is primarily decided by the media, spectators, and multiple investors who actively shape the course of the reputational crisis and public perception of unfolding events. It can be argued that the degree of character assassination as a destroyed reputation is always in the eye of the beholder. Some targets of smear campaigns may appear only “slightly wounded” after several smear campaigns. They manage to “arise from the dead” and reanimate their public profiles relatively quickly. The context implies that every CA case should be examined across a continuum in terms of the reputational damage. They range from an episodic insult or provocation intended to hurt and distract to more elaborate, “napalm death” campaigns aiming to completely obliterate the public profile of an adversary. The severity of character assassination is conditioned by multiple factors, including the availability of resources allocated by the attacker and the target for offensive and defensive activities. Clearly, strong players, such as totalitarian states, have all resources and instruments at their disposal, available to give a lethal blow to someone’s reputation. Thus, a comprehensive CA analysis should consider the specifics of the political environment and the regime in which attackers and targets operate.
The IWP event served as a perfect platform to launch our most recent project, Routledge Handbook of Character Assassination and Reputation Management. This handbook includes thirty chapters written by scholars from over ten countries. The release of the handbook intended for both academics and practitioners is scheduled for December 2018.