By Martijn Icks
Last month, Eric Shiraev and I participated in the 2nd International Conference in Scandalogy at the University of Bamberg, Germany. It was a very engaging event, bringing together researchers from many disciplines who focus on the study of scandal and scandal cultures.
Obviously, these terms are closely related to character assassination. After all, at the heart of each scandal there’s a person, company or organization suffering reputational damage. What we brought to the table is the notion that many scandals do not happen by accident, but are deliberately initiated and, insofar as possible, orchestrated by parties that set out to hurt the good standing of an opponent.
Eric and I prepared a joint presentation with cases ranging from the Roman Bona Dea scandal (more on that some other time, perhaps) to the smear campaign against the U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul in Russia. Due to time constraints, we had to leave out several minor cases. I want to bring up one of these for this blog – not because it’s particularly important or spectacular, but because it nicely demonstrates how a skillful character assassin can play the media and how hard it can be for the target to find the right response to the attack. Oh, and there’s an element of fake news in it as well.
Many readers of this blog will not be intimately familiar with the ins and outs of Dutch politics (for which they may be forgiven), but they may have heard of Geert Wilders, leader of the populist Freedom Party or PVV (Partij voor de Vrijheid), which regards Islam as a fascist ideology, warns against the impending doom scenario of “Eurabia” and advocates banning the Quran. One of Wilders’ staunchest opponents has been Alexander Pechtold, leader of the liberal democratic D66 (Democraten 66). In last year’s national election campaign, the two once again came to blows with one another.
Trouble started when Wilders tweeted an image (the featured title image of this post) of Pechtold attending a rally of conservative Muslims, depicting him speaking to journalists while surrounded by banners with texts such as “SHARIAH FOR THE NETHERLANDS” and “ISLAM WILL CONQUER EUROPE”.
In translation, the text of the tweet read: “D66 wants to split off Amsterdam if the election results are bad. Pechtold demonstrates with Hamas terrorists. Is this the next step?”
Not surprisingly, the tweet scandalized many PVV supporters, who promptly bombarded Pechtold with angry tweets and e-mails. In their fury, it may have escaped them that this was actually a photo-shopped image, and not even a new one: it had been making the rounds on the Internet for years before Wilders put it to use. A careful reading of the tweet also reveals that the image should probably be taken as a hypothetical. The words “Is this the next step?” seem to indicate a future horror scenario, not something that already happened. So Pechtold, the advocate of globalization, multiculturalism and other things abhorrent to the PVV, has on reflection not sold his soul to sharia supporters yet.
A second scandal erupted when it emerged that the image was fake, with even some international media like The Washington Post and Al Jazeera reporting on the case. Strictly speaking, Wilders may not have been guilty of creating fake news. After all, he never claimed that the image was real. Yet it is hard to escape the impression that the notorious tweet was deliberately designed to mislead, since those who only glanced at it casually (and how much time do we generally take for a tweet?) might well take the image of Pechtold demonstrating for sharia law at face value. In other words, this could be seen as a well-designed character attack, implicating a politician whom many PVV supporters viewed with suspicion to begin with and generating a lot of free media attention for Wilders, while leaving him enough wriggle room to claim he had been misinterpreted.
Pechtold, who received death threats from fanatic PVV supporters in the past, condemned the tweet in his response, remarking that he could take a joke, but that this was going too far. His reaction prompted another tweet from Wilders, who called him a drama queen and a hypocrite and told him to stop complaining. This made it seem as if Pechtold was playing the victim card and was blowing things out of proportion, but of course it was Wilders who lit the fire of scandal in the first place and was now fanning the flames. It seems unlikely that the PVV leader was unaware of the outrage the photo-shopped image would cause. In fact, outrage was probably exactly what he was hoping for.
Considering the misleading nature of the original tweet, launched in a political and cultural climate that was highly inflammable where Islam, sharia and related topics were concerned, Pechtold’s complaint that a line had been crossed seems reasonable enough. The problem is that reasonableness does not always suffice in these situations. A polite protest has the merit of maintaining decorum and allows the protester to claim the moral high ground, but it comes at the risk of being painted as a whiner. In the never-ending game of character assassination, those without scruples are usually one step ahead.