George Mason University

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Mason lab studies character assassination in age of dangerous dialogue

August 31, 2017   /   by Buzz McClain

Sergei Samoilenko, co-founder of the Character Assassination and Reputation Politics research lab, at the National Press Club earlier this year. Photo provided.

The toxic dialogues dominating public discourse are often alarming and, in some cases, dangerous, but there is a difference between abrasive name-calling and potentially punitive criminal characterization, said Sergei Samoilenko.

Samoilenko, a professor of communication at George Mason University, is co-founder of the Character Assassination and Reputation Politics research lab at George Mason. The lab, co-founded by political science professor Eric Shiraev, goes beyond examining the words used and studies “the systems and environments that lead to cases of incivility and aggressive behavior,” Samoilenko said.

Those environments become increasingly conducive to individual cases of “communication violence” and “semantic terrorism” trying to gain media spotlight and public attention, he said.

The lab was founded in 2016 and consists of a multidisciplinary research team of scholars, including those from Mason’s Department of Communication and the Schar School of Policy and Government, who present their findings at seminars and conferences around the country.

The lab is also populated by students who perform their own research or help others with theirs, said Shiraev. In the past, students have looked at the issue of character assassination in other countries, including Iran and China. The China study was published in a peer-reviewed journal, “which is very rare for an undergraduate,” Shiraev added.

Researchers in the lab are working on a 30-chapter handbook covering what Samoilenko calls “the five important components to understanding character assassination and how they link together.” Those are the targets, the attackers, the public, the context and the media.

At a recent a Public Relations Society of America conference examining the role of political communications professionals in an era of “fake news” at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Samoilenko released a well-received and timely report on understanding “intentionally destructive public discourse.”

A recent example of character assassination involved the false accusation that Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign operated a child sex ring in a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant. The rumor inspired a gunman to fire a shot in the occupied restaurant while he searched for “victims.”

“We don’t know who the attacker was,” Samoilenko said, pointing out that the rifleman was not the person who originated the story, the character assassinator. “The conspiracy theory was coined online.”

When other online outlets spread the false information, a small story became a big story that inspired hate speech and affected the restaurant’s image, Samoilenko said, adding that “this is why we have to study the systems and the environments of character assassination.”

The often-demeaning tweets of the president are considered character attacks, Samoilenko said, “but he’s frequently using them for populist purposes. It’s a rhetorical strategy to assault opponents, but whether the intention is to destroy their character, we often don’t know.”

In the spring, Samoilenko and Shiraev will teach an interdisciplinary course called Character Assassination and Reputation Management in Public Relations. Undergraduate communication and government students will examine case studies and develop scenarios for managing reputational attacks.

“The biggest thing to teach now is how to defend attacks,” Shiraev said. “We see how easy it is to attack, now we need to be prepared to defend.”