Character Assassination as a Field of Academic Research
Character assassination (CA) is the deliberate destruction of an individual’s reputation or credibility. It refers to both the process (e.g., a smear campaign), and the outcome of this process (e.g., a damaged reputation). Character assassination consists of both direct and indirect character attacks in the form of verbal and non-verbal assaults and accusations aimed at a person’s morals, integrity, and public image. CA tactics may include cheap shots, rumors, negative advertising, pamphlets, cartoons, Internet memes, inopportune photos, and many other techniques. Other CA methods may include the erasing of collective memory through history distortion, editing Wikipedia entries, or silencing someone’s merits or professional achievements in the public sphere. Because of character attacks, individuals may be rejected by their professional community or members of their social or cultural groups. The process of character attacking may resemble an annihilation of a human life, as the damage sustained can last a lifetime. For some historical figures that damage endures for centuries.
Although character assassination appears to be as old as human civilization, there had been little academic interest until the 1950s. Since then, the academic community has been working on this notion, preceding the current boom of CA use by media and public figures. The widespread use of character assassination in recent years is directly related to the rise of incivility in contemporary politics.
As a field of academic inquiry, the study of CA has lately been experiencing a renaissance. It now attracts significant interest across many disciplines. In the summer of 2011, a group of scholars organized the first international conference on character assassination at the University of Heidelberg, funded by the 7th Framework Program of the European Union. Following this conference, Martijn Icks and Eric Shiraev edited Character Assassination throughout the Ages. Since 2014, academic courses in different countries study scientific research, theory, and applications concerning the CA phenomenon. Since 2014, the module HIS1003: Ancient Smear – Defamation in Ancient Greece and Rome has been taught at Queen’s University Belfast. Another interdisciplinary course: Character Assassination and Reputation Management in Public Relations has been offered at George Mason University for undergraduate students majoring in communication and political science.
The 2016 U.S. presidential election provides an extensive database for scholars. It was not only characterized by an increase in “nasty politics,” but also by the rise of populism and political showmanship that employed character attacks strategically to shock the audience to steal the media spotlight. This election urged researchers to ask answer many questions. Among them, how does character assassination work? Why do some attack targets fall so easily, when others remain immune to smear campaigns? How does one prevent and defend against character assassination? The purpose of this conference was to address these and many other questions.