The Dangers Of Character Assassination During Political Campaigns – Part 1

During the 2019 Botswana election campaign, there was political rumouring everywhere, writes JANET SEKGARAMETSO-SENOSI

The cliché that politics is a dirty game is for the simple reason that it’s a game that has no rules, no standards or set principles and anyone can play it. It’s a cutthroat battlefield where the prize is power and money, and as they say, only the thick skinned survive.
Essentially, one has to be insensitive to criticism and insults when one enters the political den. New technological innovations such as social media enable agents with malicious intent to cause tangible reputational damage to their target. Aggressors have resorted to various defamation practices known collectively as character assassination.

Character assassination is the deliberate and sustained effort to damage the reputation or credibility of an individual. It is also defined as “the slandering of a person usually with the intention of destroying public confidence in that person”. Essentially, what this means is that there are individuals or groups that take the maximum delight in running down other peoples’ reputations, particularly leaders. They oil their ego by pulling other people down. “When people can’t kill your dream, they will try to kill your character.”

The essence of this article is to show the danger of character assassination that politicians, individuals’ groups and the media use during political campaigns. Studies show that over the years, campaigns are normally used to focus not on issues deserving attention but on negative matters which in reality should not be the focus of any serious election campaign.

Moral standing
A politician should discuss pertinent issues such as the economy and not the moral standing of their opponent. All it does is muddy the waters and doesn’t give the electorate an opportunity to follow and align with a worthy politician. In a democratic context, election campaigns and debates are content–based. The electorate largely get to make their choices from the contents of deliverables in the manifestos of political parties and their candidates.

It is imperative that they read and listen to the workability of each candidate’s plan of action before taking an informed decision on who to vote for. But because of the highly competitive nature of campaigns where stakes are so high as to who is going to hold the highest office of the land and the party that will rule, many resort to character assassination to smear their competitor’s campaign.

To be able to sieve through the intention of character assassination, there are four different actors that one should pay attention to and be able to understand what exactly it is meant for and treat is as such. There’s the attacker, the victim, the media and the public. For instance, during debate, an opponent being the attacker can give an irrelevant response that attacks the opponent, making them victims, instead of the opponents’ arguments. Such personal attacks steer attention away from the debate issue to the opponent’s personal side like traits or reputation which the media will illuminate for public consumption. It would seem they actually said something but there was no meaningful counter-argument.

There are seven classifications of character attack methods that studies have produced and they are as follows: anonymous lies, misquoting, silencing, acts of vandalism, name-calling, mental illness and sexual deviance. Under anonymous lies, an attacker falsifies information about their victim. Some lies are not even anonymous but blatant. Anonymous lies can come in the form of fake accounts by social media agents to lie about the victims, especially during election campaigns.

Another method of character assassination is misquoting. This is whereby an attacker omits significant details from a quote or quoting out of context. It can also infer to selecting unfortunate or poor photographs taken in awkward situations which promulgate ridicule. Journalists, bloggers and influencers’ common aim is to show a politician in pitiable light. For example, a photo of a politician cutting a ribbon symbolising the official opening of a toilet or a leader sleeping during a parliamentary seating.

Name calling
One of the most commonly used short term character assassination method is name calling, such as quick short insults, ridicule or demonising labels. In politics, the most common name calling includes thief, liar, Nazi, incompetent, terrorist, racist, warmonger, feminist or sexiest, to name just a few. An attachment of a name to a political leader of any kind portrays them in that exact literal meaning. If the attacker says a leader is a thief, the implication is that they cannot be trusted with managing state resources.

Cartoonists ridicule their victims under the guise of humour with the sole purpose of showing contemptuous exaggeration or distortion to attack an individual’s character by portraying the victims as weak, stupid, unbalanced, irrational or hypocritical. Name calling, if successful, puts a negative slant on a candidate and his/her policies so they appear less meaningful or important.

Throughout history, allegations of an individual experiencing mental illness in the past or currently experiencing mental illness is a common character assassination ploy which is successful because of the strong social stigma attached to psychological disorders. A political leader is expected to be of sound mind, rational and stable. Therefore, if tainted with mental illness, these expectations are questioned, making the leader not to be taken seriously. However, if the leader deemed to be mentally ill is seen in public being rational and sane, the public will see the assertion as political hogwash.

Character attackers often use sexual and social deviance methods against their adversaries, such as leaking pornographic material, inappropriate sexual chats or calls with the intent to humiliate and destabilise the victim’s personal life. Sexual deviance methods are often short term, depending on the degree of the allegation. If it is rape or defilement, then it will certainly become synonymous with the victim even. And when the courts find them not guilty, their reputation will be judged in the court of public opinion which focuses on publicly positioned principles such as ethics, social and political values or cultural and religious beliefs.

During the 2016 United States election campaign between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump, they both used moral deviance on each other with Hilary alluding to the fact that Trump is on his third marriage and Trump digging out the Monica Lewinsky scandal, tweeting that Bill Clinton has a terrible record of women abuse. These assertions and outbursts have short term effect because the public tends to get over them quite quickly.

*Janet Sekgarametso-Senosi

Political Analyst Masters in Politics and International Relations UB (2013)