Character assassination is a deliberate and sustained process that destroys the credibility and reputation of a person, institution, organization, social group, or nation. Agents of character assassinations employ a mix of open and covert methods to achieve their goals, such as raising false accusations, planting and fostering rumours, and manipulating information.
Character assassination is an attempt to tarnish a person's reputation. It may involve exaggeration, misleading half-truths, or manipulation of facts to present an untrue picture of the targeted person. It is a form of defamation and can be a form of ad hominem argument.
For living individuals targeted by character assassination attempts, this may result in being rejected by their community, family, or members of their living or work environment. Such acts are often difficult to reverse or rectify, and the process is likened to a literal assassination of a human life. The damage sustained can last a lifetime or, for historical figures, for many centuries after their death.
In practice, character assassination may involve doublespeak, spreading of rumours, innuendo or deliberate misinformation on topics relating to the subject's morals, integrity, and reputation. It may involve spinning information that is technically true, but that is presented in a misleading manner or is presented without the necessary context. For example, it might be said that a person refused to pay any income tax during a specific year, without saying that no tax was actually owed due to the person having no income that year, or that a person was sacked from a firm, even though he may have been made redundant through no fault of his own, rather than being terminated for cause.
Others define character assassination as the deliberate destruction of an individual's reputation, which does not include social groups or institutions. It is important to distinguish between character attacks and character assassination. Character attacks are assaults aimed at a particular individual—as opposed to attacks aimed at certain groups, movements, or nationalities, such as happen in the construction of enemy images. If they succeed in destroying their victim's reputation, we speak of successful attacks and character assassination. However, attacks can also fail.
Three features of character attacks are important to understand. First, their intention: character attacks are by definition deliberate. Second, the public nature of the attacks: private insults do not lead to reputation damage. And third, the importance of the public perception of the attacks, which means that the truth of allegations is irrelevant.
According to Thomas, character assassination is an intentional attempt, usually by a narcissist and/or his or her codependents, to influence the portrayal or reputation of someone in such a way as to cause others to develop an extremely negative or unappealing perception of him or her. It typically involves deliberate exaggeration or manipulation of facts, the spreading of rumours and deliberate misinformation to present an untrue picture of the targeted person, and unwarranted and excessive criticism.
The authors of the book Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work describe a five phase model of how a typical workplace psychopath climbs to and maintains power. In phase four (confrontation), the psychopath will use techniques of character assassination to maintain their agenda.
In politics, character assassination is a form of negative campaigning. Opposition research is the practice of collecting information on someone that can be used to discr them. A smear campaign is the use of falsehoods or distortions. Scandalmongering can be used to associate a person with a negative event in a false or exaggerated way.
Perhaps the most common form of character assassination is the spread of allegations that a candidate is a liar. Other common themes may include allegations that the candidate is a bad or unpopular member of his family, has a bad relationship with his spouse or children or is not respected by his colleagues. Another theme claims that the person routinely engages in disturbing, socially unacceptable behavior, such as sexual deviancy. The person may also be portrayed as holding beliefs widely considered despicable within society, such as supporting racism or other forms of bigotry.
Charging an opponent with character assassination may have political benefits. In the hearings for Clarence Thomas' nomination to the Supreme Court of the United States, supporters claimed that both Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill were victims of character assassination.
The International Society for the Study of Character Assassination (ISSCA) specialises in the academic study and research of how character attacks and assassinations have been executed in both history and during contemporary times.
Character attacks come in three categories. The first is attacks between equals. These often happen in democracies, especially during elections. The second is top-down attacks, or authoritarian regimes cracking down on individuals. Examples include:
The third is bottom-up attacks, or individuals attacking authoritarian leaders. Examples include:
The effect of a character assassination driven by an individual is not equal to that of a state-driven campaign. The state-sponsored destruction of reputations, fostered by political propaganda and cultural mechanisms, can have more far-reaching consequences. One of the earliest signs of a society's compliance to loosening the reins on the perpetration of crimes (and even massacres) with total impunity is when a government favors or directly encourages a campaign aimed at destroying the dignity and reputation of its adversaries, and the public accepts its allegations without question. The mobilisation toward ruining the reputation of adversaries is the prelude to the mobilisation of violence in order to annihilate them. Generally, official dehumanisation has preceded the physical assault of the victims.
In July 2011, scholars from nine countries gathered at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, to debate "the art of smear and defamation in history and today". They formed a group to study character assassination throughout the ages. The group included historians, political scientists, and political psychologists.