Democracy & Justice

What Is a Smear Campaign? Can You Spot and Beat One?

Smear campaigns are an attempt by powerful figures to undermine someone's credibility and reputation - with the goal of distracting public attention from something they are trying to keep quiet. Recovering from a smear campaign is tough, but possible.

by Jonathan Day

People who work on causes like fundamental rights protection or protecting clean air and water, or journalists who inform the public about government corruption or the harmful actions of corporations, are increasingly being targeted by very public, very personal attacks against their character and work. These carefully orchestrated attacks, known as smear campaigns, can be used against almost anyone, but it’s those people and organizations working for freer, fairer and more transparent societies that are so often the victims.

What is a smear campaign?

A smear campaign is an effort to damage someone’s reputation, to undermine their credibility and the public’s trust in them, to intimidate them or even to silence their work altogether. It is done by disseminating damaging propaganda that most often avoids a substantive critique of the actual work of the target or any relevant public interest - instead attacks the victim personally or broadly smears or completely misrepresents what they do. This is done through ad hominem attacks that might make use of distorted imagery or quotations taken out of context.

In addition to an effort to undermine someone’s character or work, smear campaigns are also tools to divert attention. It is almost always the case that a smear campaign is launched by someone – like a government or public figure, or powerful corporation – in part to distract public attention from whatever they are doing or trying to keep quiet. This is a common feature, for example, of smear attacks that are launched against investigative journalists and activists.

Who can be a victim of smear campaigns? Why these groups?

Smear campaigns can be used against individuals, organizations, or other groups. They have frequently been used to target politicians or other public figures, activists, and journalists. Smear campaigns against these latter two groups, in particular civil rights and environmental activists and independent journalists and media outlets, have been increasingly common, even in the EU, especially against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic and years-long efforts to curb migration rights and humanitarian protection efforts.

Smear campaigns are, almost by definition, asymmetric attacks. Although they can theoretically target anyone, smear campaigns are most often launched by people or entities with resources – increasingly, by populist authoritarian governments with captured state media outlets that do the smearing for them – and target individuals or organizations that often operate on shoestring budgets.

Human rights groups, environmental organizations, investigative journalists and other watchdogs are often the victims of smear campaigns. These are ripe targets for several reasons. First, as mentioned, it’s very possible that they have limited resources and would struggle to effectively respond to a smear campaign on a level necessary to actually “beat” it. More importantly, however, they are often targets because these individuals often work to keep in check the power of governments or elites and to make their actions transparent. Or their work can threaten the profits of huge corporations (like the work of environmental groups).

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1. Smear campaign against NGOs

Non-governmental organizations are often the targets of smear campaigns. We’ve seen many examples of this just in the European Union, and just in the last few years. In particular, the Hungarian government has an affinity for smear campaigns that borders on addiction. Since returning to power in 2010, Viktor Orban’s government has smeared NGOs numerous times, calling them “foreign agents” and threats to national values and security. Why? Because these groups work to protect the rights of the segments of society that Orban scapegoats: foreigners, ethnic minorities, LGBTQI people and many others.

Like other targets of smear campaigns, NGOs often work on a very tight budget. They may lack the resources necessary to mount a proper counter to the smear attack, which would need to reach beyond their core base of supporters to those who are likely to actually believe the smear. NGOs are also a favourite target because they are easily lumped together. By smearing an NGO that works on migrants’ rights, it is very easy to undermine the credibility of other NGOs working to protect marginalized groups with the same line of attack – that they are promoting foreign interests that damage the country.

2. Smear campaign against journalists

Journalists are often the targets of smear campaigns, especially those whose work is truly independent and free from influence by the government or businesses. This is because these journalists still perform the core functions of investigative journalism – they report on what the government or other powerful actors are doing, bringing to light information that is often contrary or damaging to the government narrative or the desires of corporations. As journalists often have a direct line of communication to the general public (as many NGOs do not) and can easily disseminate their messages, smear attacks seek to undermine their credibility entirely and, where possible, erode the support of not only the journalist’s readers but their publisher as well.

3. Smear campaign to silence NGOs/journalist

As you may have guessed, smear campaigns are not just intended to harm the reputation of their victims, but often aim to silence them as well. If you get smeared, people or other organizations stop working with you so as not to annoy your powerful opponent, like the government. Smear campaigns also encourage supporters of the smearer to further attack the victims, in which case they may choose to self-censor and silence themselves. This is particularly true when it comes to journalists, who have faced smear campaigns for reporting corruption or other abuses of power. We have seen numerous examples of this in the EU (read on for several noteworthy examples), and they often proliferate in the midst of serious public debate or national emergencies, like the coronavirus pandemic.

What are the signs of a smear campaign?

Smear campaigns contain a number of standard elements, like exaggerations, misstatements, distortions, and outright lies. One of the hallmarks of a smear campaign is that it most often avoids discussing real substance – debated policies or ideas, the actual work of the victim, etc. Instead, smear campaigns are either broad smears of activists’ work – for example, anyone working on humanitarian aid could be branded a “people smuggler” – or personal attacks. Their aim is to undermine the credibility of their target, to erode trust in them, and possibly to silence them.

Another sign of a smear campaign is simple, easy-to-understand messaging. Smear campaigns often seek to attach short labels to their targets – like “foreign agents” or “enemies of the state” or even “mercenaries” – that are so easy to consume that they don’t need to be further explained or justified. Moreover, these labels will often be accompanied by imagery that unrealistically portrays the victim or plays up existing and well-known stereotypes. A good example of this is the Orban government’s smear campaign against philanthropist George Soros that featured a picture of him with an evil-looking grin, evoking disgusting anti-Jewish stereotypes.

Smear campaign examples around the world

Smear campaigns know no boundaries, and have become commonplace even in free and democratic societies where fair elections, quality journalism, and informed public debate are prized.

Ralph Nader, an American activist and politician, was the victim of a smear campaign in the 1960s because of his campaign to increase car safety. General Motors employed private investigators to tap his phones and even hire prostitutes to catch him in unsavoury situations in order to sully his reputation and discredit his work. Nadar was fortunate to have the means to counter the smear campaign in court, winning a settlement against the company.

In an example of how even large, powerful entities can also be targeted by smear campaigns, the Chinese government launched a smear campaign against Apple in 2011, the root of which was the allegation that Apple was replacing broken iPhones with refurbished ones, rather than fixing them. State-run newspapers and online platforms ran articles day after day calling Apple “arrogant” and indifferent to Chinese customers. In the end, the public didn’t seem to buy the smear campaign narrative and it fizzled. Or perhaps they just loved their iPhones so much.

More recently, and closer to home, the Hungarian government has launched numerous smear campaigns in recent years. In 2018, it passed a law that sought to cripple the work of NGOs that worked, even in part, on migration issues, making it more difficult for them financially and limiting the scope of their freedom to operate. The draft bill was released along with a national smear campaign against these groups that culminated with a pro-government magazine publishing the names of hundreds of people – civil rights activists, journalists, even academics – who had criticized the bill and the Orban government more generally.

Independent journalists have also been the targets of recent smear campaigns in the EU. In Slovenia, the previous government constantly smeared journalists, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. The then prime minister, Janez Janša, even used his Twitter account to accuse journalists of spreading lies and misleading the public. And just this year in Hungary, Átlátszó, one of the last remaining independent media outlets in the country, was accused of “betraying” the nation in government-friendly media. It was alleged, completely without evidence, that they were working for foreign interests and being a national security risk.

How to recover from a smear campaign?

Liberties has published a guide on how activists working for progressive causes can counter smear campaigns. It’s actually not much more complicated than following a basic messaging structure – as long as you also keep in mind several important things that are particular to dealing with smear campaigns.

First, never repeat your opponent’s smear. This is true even if you want to do so in order to refute the smear, and it’s for a very good reason: repetition cements the most emotive words in your audience’s mind. For example, let’s say you’re an activist who is the target of a smear campaign where the government calls you a “foreign agent who is a traitor to the country.” If you reply by saying, “I’m not a foreign agent and I’m not a traitor to the country, I’m just defending the rights of freedoms of everyone” in said country, the words many people will remember are “foreign agent” and “traitor.” You end up doing more harm than good.

Second, no myth-busting and no direct contradictions. Myth-busting often involves repeating your opponent’s message, adopting their framing and thereby actually helping them, not you.

Third, don’t make the mistake of co-opting your opponent’s message. Social psychologists have found that the types of messages used by authoritarians are very good at creating support for restrictions on human rights and environmental protection. So, if you’re an NGO, responses that are based on messages similar to those used by your opponents are likely to work against you. For example, if a smear campaign paints your organization as a danger to national security, a response based around the message that “NGOs are good for public security” isn’t a winner. Why? Talking about security reinforces the thinking that the world is a dangerous place, which makes people long for stability and want to restrict people and practices that could rock the boat, like free speech and protest.

Finally, don’t use overly technical language. To overcome smear campaigns, it is helpful to appeal not only to your base of supporters (who are least likely to believe the smear and stop supporting you anyway) but also the wider public – those who could be swayed to believe the smear, or not. This portion of your audience needs to understand what you are saying, so keep the language you use very basic and accessible. It’s almost certain that the language of the smear campaign will be very basic and easy to understand. You should respond similarly.

So, if that’s what not to say, how should you actually respond to smear campaigns? An effective response to a smear campaign is one that uses a structure referred to as a “truth sandwich.” You begin your response by underlining what you stand for – the causes you are promoting. Second, allude to (but don’t repeat) your opponent’s attack and explain why they are attacking you – exposing their malign motives helps discredit them. Finally, offer a solution and ask people to support you.

Putting all these elements together, here’s what a “truth sandwich” response to a smear campaign might look like. A hypothetical attack could be:

“Activists are spreading an ideology that harms our children. We must stop this propaganda.”

A traditional response we see is myth-busting:

“We are not spreading harmful propaganda. Recognizing LGBTQI persons is not an ideology. It is a human right recognized in international law and our constitution that every person should be treated equally, no matter their gender identity or sexual orientation.”

As discussed, this is not a winning message. It repeats the smear and then uses jargon and legalistic arguments which are not persuasive to most audiences. Instead, a “truth sandwich” response would be something like:

“No matter who we vote for, most of us agree that our leaders should govern for all of us. But some politicians are so desperate to hold onto power that they try to divide us based on who we love. They hope we’ll be too busy blaming each other to realize the problems they’ve caused while they’ve been in power. But we know, no matter who we love, most of us want the same things, like being able to support our families and pay the rent. When we unite across our differences, we can demand leaders who work for all of us. That’s what this government is afraid of.”

Note that this response doesn’t directly try to refute the smear. Instead, it focuses on shared values and draws attention to the government (or whoever your opponent is) and how they are the ones standing between where we are and where we want to get to. It paints a picture of togetherness and collective strength instead of division. And it avoids overly complicated language.

Can you beat a smear campaign?

Recovering from a smear campaign can seem like an insurmountable hill to climb. But, following the right steps, it is possible. It is important to keep in mind some issues that are specific to responding to smear campaigns, like not repeating the smear. And always stay focused on what you do, not what they say. Never stop leading with your values and continue to remind people that you share their vision for a better world – and you have ideas on how to get there. If you can do these things, you’re well on your way to beating a smear campaign.


Further reading:

Why Is Freedom of Speech Important in a Democracy: 5 Reasons

What Is Watchdog Journalism: Definition, Examples, Effects On Democracy

Liberties Media Freedom Report 2022 Shows Worrisome Decline in Media Freedom Across Europe

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