Dr. Sergei Samoilenko discusses ad hominem attacks and how character assassination is evolving with technology.

Producer: Michael Gordon
12/02/2021 • 09:10 AM EST

Dr. Sergei Samoilenko, of George Mason University, discusses ad hominem, the motivations behind it, and how the technique fits into the framework of character assassination. He also reviews character assassination campaigns of the past that have ended political careers and looks into recent and future campaigns that are making greater use of machine learning and deep fakes.

0:00: Michael Gordon:

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

0:16: Dr. Sergei Samoilenko:

The pleasure is mine. How you doing Mike?

0:19: Michael Gordon:

Very good. Thank you. One of the first questions I'd like to ask is there's an overlap between ad hominem and character assassination. How would you differentiate the two?

0:32: Dr. Sergei Samoilenko:

Well it's a great question. In fact, we use characteristic assassination as an umbrella term to discuss a lot of different practices and ad hominem happens to be one of them. So, we think that character assassination as basically the use of subversive communication techniques to ruin someone's reputation, can be applied both in open debates, but it could be also secretive and clandestine. It could be used a lot in what we call campaigns of strategic deception. And obviously some of them are used in propaganda campaigns.

Well ad hominem techniques, basically are part of an open public debate. And the use of ad hominem is quite justified and common in political campaigns in liberal democracies. So if you take a look at presidential campaigns in the United States, a lot of them have the use of ad hominem attacks in which opponents are trying to praise themselves, but also question the legitimacy and competency of their opponents.

So this point, I think it's quite justified, in scholars like Will Benoit and Doug Walton, they talked about how some of these approaches are quite legitimate because in fact, sometimes it helps the public to know about whether first of all, politicians can stand the pressure and they can respond. Also, whether some of those questions could reveal some information that politicians and other public figures are trying to hide from the audience. Will Benoit was also talking about how some of those ad hominem attacks would be used in business communication or in life in general, just to help people better understand maybe what type of products corporations are using and whether some corporate practices are clean.

So at this point, if some of those ad hominem attacks help the public to stay informed and that's good. So at this point, we look at the use of ad hominems as the tool, right. So it could be a tool in good hands. It could be a tool in bad hands. So, the question is who is the ethical and unethical actor in this interaction?

3:27: Michael Gordon:

Can you give us a couple of examples of some unethical use of ad hominem, historically?

3:32: Dr. Sergei Samoilenko:

Right. So there are different types of ad hominem, obviously. And the first thing that comes to mind is they use abusive ad hominem. And that could be the use of nicknames, ridicule, and basically anything below the belt in order to distract the opponent from discussing the actual issue. So you focus instead on the character because you're not able to discuss the issue. So that's seen as kind of an unethical way of a dialogue. So in other words that distracts from what the public needs to know. So, and that's used a lot sometimes when people are trying to divert public attention from an actual issue discussed, or maybe they're trying to overlook some important details the public needs to know. So in this case, use of ad hominem is seen as irrelevant, right?

So there are other types of ad hominem, for example, bias ad hominem. And that's used a lot in climate change debate when contrarians are trying to tell the public about climate scientists as being bribed by some organizations or politicians with vested interests, or they've been corrupted by, you know big politics and things like that. So the bias ad hominem is used quite often in policy debates.

So, another thing that is quite often is the accusation of inconsistency and that's a kind of a big accusation sometimes for a politician. So basically saying that you're not practicing what you preach is used a lot to say that well, a politician is just a populist and he, or she will not be able to kind of commit to to the words or the promises that they've given the audience.

So at this point there are lots of different ad hominems that you can think about. And because I'm a researcher and a scholar, and I sometimes study how some of these ad hominems are used in academic environments. Accusation of incompetence come to mind quite often when sometimes, you know, people like climate scientists or social scientists, they are just called activists and bloggers instead of basically opponents actually trying to kind of justify and give them a kind of credit as, you know, serious scholars and serious scientists.

So at this point, the use of ad hominem is quite wide. So it depends on the motive. It depends on the context and it depends on basically the end goal. Sometimes the use ad hominem is just intermediary. So sometimes you're trying to fry bigger fish. So by attacking a person, in fact you might want to attack ideology behind this person, or a big idea that that person is trying to represent or a movement. And that's basically one of those more complicated uses of ad hominems that come with some cascading effects that we sometimes study.

7:13: Michael Gordon:

How do you do your research on character assassination? How do you find the data?

7:19: Dr. Sergei Samoilenko:

Well, it's a great question because we, as the CARP lab, we are a team of interdisciplinary researchers, meaning that we come from different backgrounds. While I am a communication scholar. So I study meanings. I study how those meanings are being produced, how those meanings being exchanged and how those meanings being received by different audiences. Jenny Keohane, who you saw in the video, she's a rhetorician, so she is interested in message production. So she's interested in persuasion and how different audiences can be persuaded. Right.

So Eric Shiraev, he's a political psychologist, so he's really interested in motivations, biases, and intent, why people engage in character assassination, who are the targets. So he's more interested in issues like what the victims, you know, do they feel like victims and is it possible to assassinate someone's character if somebody refuses to be a victim. And sometimes targets bounce back and they fight back and they become attackers themselves. Right. So he's really interested in this interaction as a more psychological duel between the attacker and the target.

Martijn Icks, who is at University of Amsterdam, he's an ancient historian. And he really, really helps us understand patterns, historical patterns of character assassination. And maybe drawing some parallels between, you know, how Cicero's character was ruined. And basically attacks on Gary Hart could have the same patterns, right. Or attacks on Bill Clinton can have same patterns. So at this point, it's really important to have a historian who understands you know, how certain things happened in the past and how some cultural and social norms have changed over time. Like, for example, in the medieval times being young was considered a big kind of flaw for a political leader because youngsters, young people, there were seen as something in between a mature man and a mature woman. And therefore they were seen as incapable of making serious and important political decisions. And therefore they should not be given power. And there were lots of propaganda and character assassination campaigns against young monarchs, at that time in Germany and France. And we know all of this because of Martin, who gives us this important insight.

So we use case studies of course. We analyze case studies. We also use in-depth interviews. We also look at message effects. So that's another thing that I'm really interested in, in our future research efforts is to look at message effects and see why some character assassination campaigns succeed and why others fail and what makes some politicians to be Teflon and why things like likeability of a person or credibility really, really helps them. Or charisma helps political leaders, for example, become immune to character attacks? And why is someone just such an easy prey for attackers?

Also I'm interested in reputation management, obviously looking at how some of those attacks used during political crisis is really important. So that's why anything from inoculating the audience ahead of time to prepare against some of those attacks to actually managing some later reputational crisis is really interesting to me.

11:49: Michael Gordon: 

What's one of the most effective character assassination attacks that you can think of?

11:57: Dr. Sergei Samoilenko:

When we look at previous campaigns. So I mentioned Gary Hart, for example, in 1987. So the reason why Gary Hart was such an easy target for the media and why Monkey Business became such a cultural reference, right? Such a cliché when we are talking about the infidelity of politicians, it's simply because...

12:31: Michael Gordon:

That was the name of the boat?

12:34: Dr. Sergei Samoilenko:

It was the name of the boat. Gary Hart was a presidential candidate and he was caught with a woman, Donna Rice sitting on his lap in front of the yacht called Monkey Business. And that became kind of a visual that was really persuasive and obviously easily turned into jokes used on late night shows. And then there was a basically, actually a country song about Gary Hart and Monkey Business at that time. So when you become part of cultural discourse and when the public think of you as the matter of ridicule, your career goes down.

So obviously it's really, that's why it's important to talk about culture. So, and when the downfall of Gary Hart coincided with lots of different variables. First of all, technology was developing. So some bad news could be delivered much faster because of fax machines, because of satellites, because of new formats of TV shows that were arriving, which kind of encourage more confrontation, more focus on personalities. The discussion of you know, famous people, prominent people in some really awkward situations, right.

In other words, that there was a new generation of journalists who sold Watergate, and they were really, really seeing this career opportunity of becoming famous by just catching a politician, doing something inappropriate. So there was like a new generation of journalists who would really, really promote their careers by simply covering a political scandal or infidelity. Right.

Another topic is that it was more focused on domestic politics because the Cold War was over. So this point there were more and more attention to domestic issues. And obviously when you have someone like Gary Hart who has this vision with wonderful ideas for the future of the nation, doing something, well stupid like that, being caught. And at that point, I mean, the public wasn't really like, didn't really care about what you did, but you shouldn't be caught on camera, right, doing this. So if you allow yourself to be in that awkward situation and look ridiculed and laughed at, so basically you lose your legitimacy as a serious politician, right?

So there were lots of circumstances. So that's why when you study character assassination, context is very important. So you really have to understand what makes some of those attacks proliferate and why they become so massive and so destructive and why some just, so there is no news. And that's what basically happened in the 60s when there were some reports about JFK and his cases of infidelity, there was no news because the relations between politicians and the media was different than in the 80s. So after Watergate things have changed, right? So the journalists were more interested in the personal lives of political leaders.

16:20: Michael Gordon:

What research are you doing or are you working on now that maybe six months from now we can discuss with you again?

16:29: Dr. Sergei Samoilenko:

So I'm doing two projects. The first project is looking at the use of new artificial intelligence and new technologies and their effects on public opinion. So we're looking at how deepfakes I use for character assassination campaigns. So we're looking at how international opinion could be changed and what are the tools out there and what we can do to counter some of those attempts.

And the second project has to do with the impacts of cancel culture on different societies, because the idea is that what we're doing here is it's really complicated because cancel culture, I personally see as a social conflict that needs to be studied as a social conflict of two incompatible ideologies with different views and different values.

And the way it's perceived across the world is very different. Like in the United States, it's usually seen as this battle between conservative and progressive values. In other countries, you might see as the imposition of Western ethics and new Western values on traditional societies. And there is a lot of kind of discussion about this. There is a backlash from more traditionalist countries like Russia, Turkey about cancel culture and their impacts.

But you also have to look at cancel culture as a strategy of cancellations. In other words, one thing is a more sociological understanding of the idea. And the second is a more communication. So what are the strategies of cancellation? How do they happen? So what is the social media call-outs and then how do they work?

So one of the new ways to look at some of those strategists, so there is doxing, there is de-platforming. There is some other ways how people are being ousted and publicly shamed. And obviously, character assassination is one of them. So it's really fascinating. And I think it will take me maybe a few years until we get to the core of this problem.

18:48: Michael Gordon:

Okay. So it looks like we're out of time for today. Again we've been talking to Dr. Sergei Samoilenko, an instructor at the department of communication at George Mason University, and one of the founding members of CARP. The Research Lab for Character Assassination and Reputation Politics. Dr. Samoilenko, thank you so much for joining us today.

19:09: Dr. Sergei Samoilenko:

Thank you, Mike. The pleasure is mine and I look forward to our next meeting.