Smear campaign

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A smear campaign, smear tactic or simply smear is a negative political tactic that launches an unfair or untrue political attack on an opposing candidate in order to undermine their political position and sway the opinions of the voters and gain support. It employs the logical technique of conflation in which separate concepts, identities, or reputations of individual or groups are combined into one word or concept, losing individual meanings and differences as in swiftboating. Sometimes the use of the term "smear campaign" is used more generally to include any organized reputation-damaging activity by a group.

Common targets are public officials, politicians, and political candidates. Smear campaigns are often based on information gleaned from opposition research conducted by paid political consultants. To a lesser degree, the term can refer to an attempt to damage a person's reputation for nonpolitical ends; for example, during a trial as part of trial strategy, counsel may attempt to cast doubt on the reliability of an opposition witness to pervert the course of justice.

Smear campaigning is related to propaganda, media bias, yellow journalism, and other falsehood-related terms such as the use of libel and pejorative terms. In extreme cases, smear campaigns may lead to widespread persecution of a group, such as in the case of the Dolchstoßlegende before WWII.


A smear campaign is an intentional, premeditated effort to undermine an individual's or group's reputation, credibility, and character. Like negative campaigning, most often smear campaigns target government officials, politicians, political candidates, and other public figures. However, private persons or groups may also become targets of smear campaigns perpetrated in companies, institutions, the legal system, and other formal groups.

Smear tactics differ from normal discourse or debate in that they do not bear upon the issues or arguments in question. A smear is a simple attempt to malign a group or an individual with the aim of undermining their credibility.

Smears often consist of ad hominem attacks in the form of unverifiable rumors and distortions, half-truths, or even outright lies; smear campaigns are often propagated by gossip magazines. Even when the facts behind a smear campaign are demonstrated to lack proper foundation, the tactic is often effective because the target's reputation is tarnished before the truth is known.

Smears are also effective in diverting attention away from the matter in question and onto the a specific individual or group. The target of the smear typically must focus on correcting the false information rather than on the original issue.

Smear tactics are considered by many to be a low, disingenuous form of discourse; they are nevertheless very common.


"The Great Republican Reform Party Calling on their Candidate", an 1856 print which is a political cartoon about John C. Frémont, the first Republican party candidate for president of the United States. There was a political campaign smear rumor current in 1856 that Fremont was a Catholic (the purpose of which was to prevent Fremont from gaining support from those who were suspicious of Catholics).

Smear tactics are commonly used to undermine effective arguments or critiques. For example, Ralph Nader was the victim of a smear campaign during the 1960s, when he was campaigning for car safety. In order to smear Nader and deflect public attention from his campaign, General Motors engaged private investigators to search for damaging or embarrassing incidents from his past. In early March 1966, several media outlets, including The New Republic and The New York Times, reported that GM had tried to discredit Nader, hiring private detectives to tap his phones and investigate his past and hiring prostitutes to trap him in compromising situations.[1][2] Nader sued the company for invasion of privacy and settled the case for $284,000. Nader's lawsuit against GM was ultimately decided by the New York Court of Appeals, whose opinion in the case expanded tort law to cover "overzealous surveillance."[3] Nader used the proceeds from the lawsuit to start the pro-consumer Center for Study of Responsive Law.

In January 2007, it was revealed that an anonymous website that attacked critics of, including media figures and private citizens on message boards, was operated by an official of[4][5][6]

Countries, particularly those outside the Western hemisphere, have accused Western powers of smear campaigns to bring down their governments. Gambia accused the United States and Britain of backing "so-called Gambians to set up organisations and media facilities to spread nothing but lies against The Gambia by making false, outrageous and unfounded statements about the state of human rights."[7] Countries have used smear campaigns to attempt to discredit Western companies. In 2011, China launched a smear campaign against Apple, including TV and radio advertisements and articles in state-run papers, that failed to turn the Chinese public against the company and its products.[8]

Spiritual leader Sathya Sai Baba was alleged with a few charges by some critics, they included fraud, sexual abuse, and others.[9] He described those charges as "Smear campaign", indeed, he never faced any investigation as these critics were criticized for lacking any proof against him.[10]


In many countries, the law recognizes the value of reputation and credibility. Both libel (a false and damaging publication) and slander (a false and damaging oral statement) are often punishable by law and may result in imprisonment or compensation or fees for damages done.

See also


  1. Longhine, Laura (December 2005). "Ralph Nader's museum of tort law will include relics from famous lawsuits—if it ever gets built". Legal Affairs.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Federal Role in Highway Safety: Epilogue — The Changing Federal Role". Federal Highway Administration. 2005-05-07.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Nader v. General Motors Corp., 307 N.Y.S.2d 647 (N.Y. 1970)
  4. Antilla, Susan (February 21, 2007). "Overstock Blames With Creepy Strategy". Bloomberg News Service.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Mitchell, Dan (January 20, 2007). "Flames Flare Over Naked Shorts," The New York Times.
  6. Boyd, Roddy (January 2, 2007). " Lashes Out at Critics on the Web". The New York Post.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Datta, Tanya (17 June 2004). "Sai Baba: God-man or con man?". BBC News.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Aitken, Bill (27 November 2005), Miracle of Welfare