Dr. Sergei Samoilenko discusses ad hominem and the normalization of character assassination.

By Michael Gordon
12/10/2020 • 04:27 AM EST

Dr. Sergei Samoilenko, of George Mason University, discusses the social phenomenon of character assassination and the undermining role ad hominem plays in the climate change debate. He breaks down the major forms of character assassination and discusses strategies to defend against each. Other topics include how character assassins take advantage of existing scandals and how current media not only amplifies character assassination, but also profits from it.

0:00: Michael Gordon:

With us today, we have Dr. Sergei Samoilenko, instructor at the department of communication at George Mason University. Dr. Samoilenko is the founding member of CARP, the research lab for Character Assassination and Reputation Politics. Dr. Samoilenko, thank you so much for joining us today.

0:17: Dr. Sergei Samoilenko:

It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

0:22: Michael Gordon:

So, I guess my first question to you is why character assassination? Why did you put so much research and time into it?

0:30: Dr. Sergei Samoilenko:

Well, thanks. It's a wonderful question. And actually, it's quite a popular question because everybody wants to ask me why I would do something like this. Why instead of researching ethics or researching, let's say strategic techniques, I would look at something as bad as character assassination. And my answer is, well, somebody has to do it, because as a social scientist, when I see something happening, you know, I cannot just ignore it. This is my duty to make sure we look at this social phenomenon and we try to understand it. And indeed, if it really, really plays a big role in changing dynamics in our society, we have to understand how to deal with that.

1:20: Michael Gordon:

So, let's switch gears first and start with ad hominem. Can you give us a brief explanation ad hominem and how it works?

1:28: Dr. Sergei Samoilenko:

So, ad hominem arguments are arguments targeting a person instead of targeting an argument or a particular point of discussion. There are different ways how ad hominem could be used. So, in recent years, they've been more and more considered as practical strategic means of winning the debate and winning at the expense of de-legitimizing the other person. So, in other words, they could be used for shifting the course of the conversation, of taking somebody out, as a political opponent, as simply destroying someone's reputation in fact. So, in fact, ad hominem, can be really seen as one of the vehicles and tools of character assassination per se.

And in my research, I've been looking at ad hominem in the climate change debate. What I found and previous research found as well, that ad hominem has been seen as the most popular strategies in fact, in the climate change debate, which are used much more frequently than attacks on policy. So, in my research, I was looking at different types of ad hominem used in attacks on climate scientists and how frequent those attacks happen. Also, I was wondering what we can do about that and whether certain critical questions that were outlined by Douglas Walton, could first of all eliminate errors in different attacks. And whether we could use some of those critical questions for future inoculation purposes. So, in this case at hominem really represented an interesting field of study,

3:24: Michael Gordon:

Would you say ad hominem is the most common technique used to attack climate science?

3:32: Dr. Sergei Samoilenko:

So that's what previous research shows. In fact, research by John Cook at his college showed that indeed ad hominem is the most popular technique used. So, John looked at basically the use of climate misinformation. And so in one of his tests, he was looking at several arguments made by contrarians saying that while climate change is not real. Well, if it's real, if it's not us, we're not doing this. So well, if it's even if it's real, even if, well, it's not that bad. So, and the fourth one, well there is no hope, there is nothing you can do. So, let's not just talk about it.

So, and basically the previous four, are really used a lot in debates. Those are very common narratives, but the fifth narrative, which is really one of the most prominent, what they found the most popular, that experts are not reliable. They're not reliable because science is unreliable, because scientists themselves are unreliable. They cannot be trusted. And climate science is a conspiracy and therefore climate scientists are conspiracies in themselves. So, and that's how I actually become interested in these topics. So I was really digging into kind of the user with ad hominem and this climate change debate.

5:08: Michael Gordon:

So is it claiming that climate scientists then have some type of a bias?

5:15: Dr. Sergei Samoilenko:

So what I have found in my research is that the three types of ad hominem attacks that are identified as shaping climate change discourse. The first one is attacks on society's morality. So they are immoral, they are greedy, they are there for their vested interests. They have some shady dealings. So any type of imperfection of moral character has been used. So expect climate scientists, including accusations of sexual misconduct and many, many other sins. The second one is inconsistent behavior. They don't practice what they preach. So there is a lot of inconsistency that climate science has been accused of. And the third one is bias. Accusation of bias, bias attacks were found by me by the most common form of contrarian ad hominem.

6:19: Michael Gordon:

And you mentioned that ad hominem is, is a technique that would fall under character assassination.

6:25: Dr. Sergei Samoilenko:

Ad hominem definitely can be used for characters assassination purposes, because character assassination, if we take this look at it as an umbrella term, obviously it's a deliberate effort to describe an individual or group targeted by means of subversive communications. So ad hominem was one of them, but aside, in addition there could be different methods used because ad hominem implies that there is an open discussion, an open debate. So at least it happens in the public sphere, right? So people can see what type of attacks have been used against, between the attacker and the target.

So, but character assassination efforts don't have to be just based on an open debate. They can be clandestine, they could be used in a very secret way. And one of the example I use is erasing from memory techniques. I also call them obliteration strategies, where sometimes people's achievements, accomplishments, are being eliminated from public memory. And especially now it's really easy, it can be done on Wikipedia. So Wikipedia becomes a popular source for, you know, that type of character assassination attack. So in this case, character assassination has lots and lots of different types and subtypes of character assassination happening the media environment. So, obliteration strategies is one of them. So the second one is a contamination strategy and the third one is a provocation strategy. So the contamination strategy.

8:17: Michael Gordon:

I'm sorry, is there usually an order they take place in?

8:21: Dr. Sergei Samoilenko:

So not necessarily, I mean, sometimes they could, they can be combined and sometimes they can be just used as one. Because we have also looked at the effectiveness of those strategies. So for example, if a provocation or staging scandal would not work, maybe instead of staging an open media scandal, you can just contaminate someone's public discourse by spreading rumors or spreading misinformation about the person. Like fake news is a perfect example, how someone's reputation can be destroyed.

9:04: Michael Gordon:

Yeah. You mentioned one of these strategies is taking advantage of a scandal that already exists. Which one was that again?

9:14: Dr. Sergei Samoilenko:

So provocation strategies has two subtypes. You either create a scandal, and we talk about the scandal production techniques, or reputational crisis production techniques. Or you try to take advantage of an already smoldering scandal, something that is already happening. So in the journalistic practice it's sometimes called "news jacking," when you hijack already happening news, and you try to insert your own agenda, and that's basically the cheapest and the most effective way, if you can do that. But obviously you can also produce a new scandal by attacking a person of lying or accusing a person of things he has done before. And also, yeah, there are different ways that you can do that. So the more and more, I actually study character assassination, the more I learn myself. And I realized that basically this research topic is unlimited in terms of things we can learn about.

10:24: Michael Gordon:

Can you discuss a little bit the role of what you call mediatization?

10:30: Dr. Sergei Samoilenko:

Yeah, mediatization basically means that the media, as an institution, becomes so powerful that it prevails over the other institutions in politics. And it has enough power to impose its own logic. But for example, politicians have to act accordingly to their media roles. And because what we'll call the commercial logic has really been dependent on clickbait, because the more topics that have to do with drama conflict, negativity, stereotypes, that you can promote out there, the more chances that people are likely to click on them. Because we, unfortunately, as the audience will like negative news and that's the reality right now. So mediatization really has an impact on basically why character assassination has become a norm, because it's profitable.

11:32: Michael Gordon:

If you were advising a politician to be a hard target for character assassination, what advice would you give as an expert on the technique?

11:44: Dr. Sergei Samoilenko:

In United States?

11:45: Michael Gordon:


11:47: Dr. Sergei Samoilenko:

In United States, you really have to practice what you preach and, even you have any imperfections, if you really have any past things that you are ashamed of, you really have to let the public know about them at some point. Because it will be revealed later in the campaign, it will backfire and your chances are pretty thin.

12:11: Michael Gordon:

So, then be preemptive with trying to get that information out before?

12:16: Dr. Sergei Samoilenko:

Right. Right. So we can talk about different preemptive strategies. So unfortunately some people are using what they call "stealing the thunder" approach, which they only use it when they fear that something is about to be disclosed. And that usually backfires. So Lance Armstrong is a perfect example right there. Right. So if he was using this stealing the thunder approach, so kind of talking about his case and the people that didn't side with him. So, because he was such a big icon before and the standards were pretty high.

12:59: Michael Gordon:

Based on your overall knowledge of the current media landscape, what should we as citizens be looking out for when it comes to character assassination?

13:09: Dr. Sergei Samoilenko:

We cannot ignore it. We should study it if we want to understand it. And if we want to learn how to counter it. And we should invest more in education, because by again, pretending it does not exist or we're not doing it, we're not really solving the problem, we're actually making it much worse. So we together can do something about this because we truly believe that it affects the foundations of democracy. And normalizing uncivil discourse and by basically making it almost impossible to reach consensus, either if it's a political discussion or it's a civil discussion.

14:00: Michael Gordon:

And over your years of studying character assassination. Was there one thing you can think of that you found really intriguing that you didn't expect?

14:10: Dr. Sergei Samoilenko:

To be quite honest, I didn't really expect this to be such a big of a problem, because I started studying character assassination by looking at well, several books. And I was quite intrigued on, you know, why they use the word ad hominem is not really spoken much about in public relations and crisis communication. And when I started digging in more, I realized that the problem is huge.

14:41: Michael Gordon:

So it's a bigger problem than you were aware until you started really.

14:46: Dr. Sergei Samoilenko:

Right. So I wasn't aware of the magnitude of this problem.

14:50: Michael Gordon:

It looks like we're out of time for today. Again, Dr. Samoilenko is one of the founding members of CARP, the research lab for Character Assassination and Reputation Politics, which you can see at carplab.wordpress.com. He's done so much research and writing in the field on this and you definitely want to check it out. We really appreciate you coming on with us, Dr. Samoilenko and to talk to us about these techniques. And we hope that you'll come back soon.

15:20: Dr. Sergei Samoilenko:

Thank you. Thank you.