George Mason University

News at Mason

Character assassination has always been around, it's just reached a new level, a Mason expert says

September 27, 2018

Sergei Samoilenko

Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake, who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, was on the Senate floor Wednesday, condemning the “toxic political culture” that has resulted, he said, in the character assassination of both Judge Brett Kavanaugh and those accusing him of sexual misconduct.

But a George Mason University instructor said character assassination has been a “strategic tool” that has been around for centuries and has been used by U.S. politicians and media since its founding.

“It is a political, cultural and social phenomenon,” said Sergei Samoilenko, a founding member of Mason’s Character Assassination and Reputation Politics Research Lab. “This is a classic situation. There’s nothing new.”

Even so, Samoilenko said the level of uncivility in the political and social discourse has increased since the 2016 presidential election.

“It raised the bar of incivility so high that any minor character attack is, like, nothing—which was not acceptable even 15 years ago when they were trying to stick to the principles of civil debate,” he said. “The question is: ‘How do you go back?’”

“Character assassination, as a phenomenon, leads to a whole culture of incivility,” Samoilenko said. “The more we keep arguing, the more we create an environment in which those things thrive. It really is detrimental to democracy as an institution, which is based on civil debate.”

Education is a key to reversing that trend, he said.

“Maybe helping the audience learn for themselves how to raise their media literacy levels, how to use fact-checking, so people are not just swayed by populist politicians or their demagoguery,” Samoilenko said. “It’s so easy to be comfortable in your filtered bubble. We have to teach our students how to be critical consumers of information. We should have started this conversation a very long time ago.”

We also need our national leaders to set the correct tone, he said.

“I believe that whoever comes next [as president] should set the standard for civil behavior,” Samoilenko said. “That may actually benefit that person in the long run. I can see how people are tired of this information noise and this uncertainty and confusion about what’s next. Predictability and focus on clear and responsible communication would be the key for the next generation of politicians.”

Sergei Samoilenko can be reached at 703-993-8472 or ssamoyle@gmu.edu.

For more information, contact Damian Cristodero at 703-993-9118 or dcristod@gm.edu.

About George Mason 

George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 37,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility.