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What Is a Smear Campaign?

Politicians may engage in a smear campaign by highlighting negative qualities about opponents during campaign events.
Rumors are commonly employed to damage someone's reputation in a smear campaign.
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  • Written By: Mark Wollacott
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 12 September 2014
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A ‘smear campaign’ is a collocation used to define an active and concerted attempt to blacken the name of a person or organization. The aggressor uses a number of tactics, including rumors and false statistics, in order to question the target’s morality. The ultimate aim of the campaign is to discredit the target for political or financial gain. It is commonly used in politics and business.

There is a distinction between a smear campaign and seeking the truth. A wily politician or organization accused of misdeeds may accuse a newspaper or rival of a smear campaign in order to deflect attention away from their misdeeds. In such cases, it is down to the accuser to prove there is substance to the claims in order to avoid punishment.

Smear campaigns attempt to use information against the target. This often includes the leaking of said information to the press anonymously. Information can come in the form of incriminating photos, rumors and suggestions. The aggressors in a smear campaign also employ the use of distorted statistics or words taken out of context in order to suggest something completely different than the target intended.

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Scientist David Kelly’s last months are a portrait of a smear campaign launched against an individual. In this case, it was not used to discredit a political rival, but to discredit someone who questioned government information. The information in question was a dossier concerning Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction released by the Labour government prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Press Secretary Tom Kelly, no relation to David, released a statement calling David Kelly a “Walter Mitty” type character: that is to say, he was deluded. David Kelly, under intense pressure by the government, appeared to take his own life. As a result, the government that orchestrated the campaign then launched an inquiry into his death. The Hutton Inquiry cleared the government of blame and instead piled it on its rival, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

The business world is not free of smear campaigns either. In 2011, it was confirmed that Facebook had employed a company to plant stories that smeared rival Google. The stories accused Google of having abused user privacy. The ultimate aim of the campaign was to tempt users away from Google and toward Facebook.

The biggest effect of such a campaign is that it forces the target onto the defensive. In politics, instead of being able to advance a philosophy or program of reform, the defendant is forced to deny allegations against himself or herself, while the rival gets a free pass. This happened in the 2004 Presidential Election in America when the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth targeted Presidential Candidate John Kerry.

When reacting to a smear campaign targets should be well-prepared in advance. Targets are advised to keep calm and to keep positive. They should admit mistakes, find allies and question the motives of the smears.

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