Smear campaign

For the Napalm Death album, see Smear Campaign (album).

A smear campaign, smear tactic or simply smear is an effort to damage or call into question someone's reputation, by propounding negative propaganda. It can be applied to individuals or groups.

Common targets are public officials, politicians, political candidates, activists and ex-spouses. The term also applies in other contexts such as the workplace.[1]

The phrase "smear campaign" became popular from around 1936.[2]


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 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.

Psychopaths and narcissists

Smear campaigns have been identified as a common weapon of psychopaths[1][3] and narcissists.[4][5][6]


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.


Smear tactics are commonly used to undermine effective arguments or critiques.

John C. Frémont - 1856 US presidential election candidate

During the 1856 presidential election, John C. Frémont was the target of a smear campaign alleging that he was a Catholic. The campaign was designed to undermine support for Fremont from those who were suspicious of Catholics.

"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).

General Motors against Ralph Nader

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.[7][8] 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."[9] Nader used the proceeds from the lawsuit to start the pro-consumer Center for Study of Responsive Law.

Gary Hart - 1988 US presidential candidate

Gary Hart was the target of a smear campaign during the 1988 US presidential campaign. Smear campaigns are a campaign tactic associated with yellow journalism which is a type of journalism that presents little well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines, scandal-mongering and sensationalism. For example, during Gary Hart's 1988 presidential campaign, the New York Post reported on its front page big, black block letters: "GARY: I'M NO WOMANIZER."[10][11]

China against Apple Inc.

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. The campaign failed to turn the Chinese public against the company and its products.[12]

Sathya Sai Baba

Spiritual leader Sathya Sai Baba was accused of fraud, sexual abuse and other misconduct.[13] Baba described the allegations as a "smear campaign". He never faced any investigation and the critics were criticized for lacking any proof against him.[14]

Julian Assange

The allegations against Julian Assange have been labelled by John Pilger as a smear campaign.[15][16]

Brad Pitt's child custody dispute

In 2016, Brad Pitt was the target of a smear campaign related to his child custody dispute. Pitt was alleged to have acted inappropriately during an argument with his 15-year-old son.[17]

Other examples

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[18][19][20]

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."[21]

See also


  1. 1 2 Jay C. Thomas, Michel Hersen (2002) Handbook of Mental Health in the Workplace
  2. ngram for smear campaign
  3. Junie Moon (2012) Surviving the Predators Among Us
  4. S. Nightshade (2016) A Pre-Book and a Victim's Guide to Surviving the Narcissist
  5. Bailey-Rug C (2016) It's Not You, It's Them: When People Are More Than Selfish
  6. Joseph Burgo (2016) The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age
  7. Longhine, Laura (December 2005). "Ralph Nader's museum of tort law will include relics from famous lawsuits—if it ever gets built". Legal Affairs.
  8. "President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Federal Role in Highway Safety: Epilogue — The Changing Federal Role". Federal Highway Administration. 2005-05-07.
  9. Nader v. General Motors Corp., 307 N.Y.S.2d 647 (N.Y. 1970)
  10. William Safire. (May 3, 1987). "On Language; Vamping Till Ready". The New York Times.
  11. Matt Bai. All The Truth Is Out: The Week That Politics Went Tabloid. Knopf (September 30, 2014) ISBN 978-0307273383
  13. Datta, Tanya (17 June 2004). "Sai Baba: God-man or con man?". BBC News.
  14. Aitken, Bill (27 November 2005), Miracle of Welfare
  15. John Pilger, "The war on WikiLeaks: a John Pilger investigation and interview with Julian Assange," John Pilger Website, 13 January 2011. Retrieved 19 March 2014.
  16. John Pilger, "WikiLeaks is a rare truth-teller. Smearing Julian Assange is shameful," John Pilger Website, 14 February 2013. Retrieved 19 March 2014.
  17. David Lawler (September 23, 2016). "Brad Pitt is furious about 'smear campaign' and will fight for custody, friends say". The Telegraph. Retrieved 16 October 2016.
  18. Antilla, Susan (February 21, 2007). "Overstock Blames With Creepy Strategy". Bloomberg News Service.
  19. Mitchell, Dan (January 20, 2007). "Flames Flare Over Naked Shorts," The New York Times.
  20. Boyd, Roddy (January 2, 2007). " Lashes Out at Critics on the Web". The New York Post.
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