Swiftboating is a slang term which is commonly used to refer to an especially vicious and public smear campaign against someone. The term has its roots in 2004, when an organization called the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth accused Presidential candidate John Kerry of lying about his military service in Vietnam. By 2005, newspaper columnists were using “swiftboating” to describe prominent smear campaigns. This slang term has attracted some controversy, with a number of people, including John Kerry, pointing out that they are disappointed to see the famous Swift Boats of the Vietnam war linked with smear campaigns.
This term is often used to describe campaigns which are marked by ad hominem attacks and other tactics which some people think are below the belt. Such tactics rarely prove the point of the organization running the negative campaign, but they can sometimes be very effective, as they appeal to basic beliefs and values. Many swiftboating campaigns are also marked by underhanded dealings and information gathering techniques which are not entirely ethical.
Some people use the term specifically in context of military service, reflecting the original swiftboating campaign mounted against John Kerry. Others use it more generally, with an emphasis on negative public relations campaigns which are very public, and sometimes very ugly. Such campaigns can be run by any number of people, from private groups attempting to smear public figures they don't like to politicians, who often use aggressive tactics to cut down opponents.
Swiftboating has been made much easier with the medium of the internet, which allows for the rapid distribution of information to people in a wide variety of places. Campaigners often take advantage of the fact that people often accept published material on the internet as fact to spread lies and misinformation, and many are well aware that well crafted lies can take months or years to untangle.
Swiftboating is not limited to socially prominent people. Almost anyone in the news can be targeted, even if they appear only briefly. For example, in 2007, a boy named Graeme Frost made a well publicized appeal to then-President of the United States George Bush, asking him not to veto a bill to expand healthcare coverage to children and using his own history as an illustration of why the bill was important. Within hours, sleuths had dug up information about Frost and his family, publicizing information about the cost of their home and the fact that the children went to private schools. As a result of this swiftboating campaign which was designed to undermine Frost's credibility, the family was deluged with emails and phone calls. Because the family was totally unprepared for the onslaught, lacking the high powered public relations teams of politicians and people used to such campaigns, the situation rapidly became extremely stressful and unpleasant.