Dr. Jennifer Keohane discusses how social media has democratized character assassination attacks.

Producer: Blaire Hobbs
02/19/2022 • 09:26 AM EST

Dr. Jennifer Keohane, co-founder of the Character Assassination and Reputation Politics lab, discusses the key factors that make for effective character attacks, as well as effective responses, such as timing, frequency, and message simplicity. She also discusses how social media has democratized character assassination, making it easier and cost-effective for just about anyone to launch a successful attack.

0:00: Blaire Hobbs:

With us today, we have Dr. Jennifer Keohane, assistant professor of Klein Family School of Communications Design at the University of Baltimore. She studies character assassination and political rhetoric, and also collaborates with the Character Assassination and Reputation Politics lab at George Mason University. Dr. Keohane, thank you so much for joining us today.

0:18: Dr. Jennifer Keohane:

Thank you so much for inviting me. I'm excited for our conversation.

0:22: Blaire Hobbs:

So, one concept that I find particularly fascinating about your work is the concept of ethos. Can you describe what ethos is and discuss the relationship ethos has to character assassination?

0:34: Dr. Jennifer Keohane:

Absolutely. That's an important question and you're letting me go back to kind of the founding principles of rhetoric here, which is important. Ethos also comes from Aristotle and it's one of his foundational modes of proof, along with pathos and logos. And so, ethos refers to credibility, the idea that we're far more likely to be persuaded by a speaker that we see as credible and trustworthy, and even in some instances similar to us. So, in general, I think that source credibility for character attacks typically matters a great deal. We're more likely to be persuaded by attackers who build strong messages by using perhaps forms of support and evidence to back up their claims.

It's also, I think, important to recognize that credibility or ethos is also preconceived, right? We have preconceived notions of who a speaker is when they begin with a message. So, in general, it's certainly the case that ethos is a really important thing for an attacker and even perhaps a target of character assassination to consider. For instance, if the ethos of the attacker is not particularly strong, maybe you brush off the attack and don't respond to it at all. Thinking that responding to it is just going to give more airtime to something that's just gonna blow over really, really quickly.

Now, I think we should put a little asterisk next to the importance of ethos though when we consider the way that a lot of attacks happen in the online space these days. Anonymous attacks are certainly very common in the social media environment on Twitter. And I think it's the case that volume or an overwhelming quantity of attacks can sometimes make up for credibility of the speaker. So, if there's just a flood of these anonymous attacks that are circulating through Twitter, that could be persuasive to an audience.

The last sort of little caveat I want to give to the idea that ethos is really important is to recognize that the reputation of the attacker, their ethos, is audience specific. For instance, for some folks, information, from a figure like QAnon would be perceived to be automatically very credible and have very high ethos. Whereas for others, that fact would be disqualifying and they would never take into consideration anything that that speaker said. So, the credibility of an attack and an attacker is really important, but we need to recognize how attacks circulate in our mediated environment and recognize that the reputation of an attacker or an attack is certainly bound by the characteristics of the audience as well.

3:27: Blaire Hobbs:

Yeah. Would you say that that is in large part significant to why character attacks are so effective?

3:37: Dr. Jennifer Keohane:

That's a great question actually. And it allows me to kind of broaden our lens to talk a little bit about the ways that we at the Character Assassination and Reputation Politics lab, typically approach a character attack campaign that we're interested in studying. We typically look at what we call five pillars or five components of character attack. And the attacker and their credibility is absolutely one component of that.

We also want to look at the characteristics and the specifics of the target or the person whose reputation the attacker is aiming to damage. We use the term target and not victim because it's not the case that every target of character assassination becomes a victim. Sometimes attacks completely backfire, and the target comes out stronger than they were even before. So, attacker and target are two of our pillars. It's also important to consider the medium. And I think that gets at the question of, you know, anonymous attacks on social media versus, you know, attack ads that we see circulating in political campaigns.

And our final two pillars then are the audience and the context. And so, we already talked a little bit about why the audience is so important, but fundamentally they're the arbiter of success. In some ways, character assassination is really more reputation assassination, right? Me launching an attack against you doesn't actually really change who you are as a person. It lowers your reputation in front of a particular audience. And so, to the extent that your reputation or the perception of your character is damaged in front of that audience, then we can say that the character attack has been successful.

And then I already talked a little bit about the importance of context, when we were talking about rhetoric, but we use context as a broad level to investigate, you know, the political environment. Obviously, attacks play out really differently in authoritarian regimes versus democratic societies, where there's a free functioning press. And we also look at sort of social and cultural aspects as well. So, allegations of inappropriate behavior are always interpreted by an audience as you know, appropriate to what, or for whom, right? And so, what gender-relations look like in a particular society, what race-relations look like in a society, absolutely influences how we react to targets and attackers. And so, it's important to pay attention to the context in that way too.

And so, putting together these five pillars, for us as scholars, helps us really try to understand what's happening in a character attack and allows us to sort of see the nuances of each individual case. Because the truth of the matter is, as much as we wish we could identify a silver bullet that will allow you to respond effectively to every character attack, they're all context specific. But looking at kind of those together allows us to get a sense of when some attacks might succeed when some might not succeed and ultimately backfire and that kind of thing. So that's kind of our broad framework for understanding how character assassination works.

6:56: Blaire Hobbs:

Yeah. That was an excellent overview of everything. I wanted to break some of that down a little bit. Specifically, when it comes to the attacker and like I guess the attackee. Are there specific features that would make a successful attacker? For instance, do they have access to the media or are they a public figure themselves and on the flip side, is there specific features of an attackee that make them more susceptible to it?

7:26: Dr. Jennifer Keohane:

That's a great question. And it's a hard one to answer because again, the whole feature of the interaction matters here. But I think that kind of what you're pointing to are some of the changes that have happened and how character assassination plays out recently. It very much used to be the case that in order to mount a successful attack, you needed access to resources like a printing press, for instance, or public airwaves. Again, if the audience is the person who decides whether the character attack matters, then getting your message out in front of the audience is going to be a really important component of a successful attack. And in fact, the printing press revolutionized the relationship between the church, and many other folks, and allowed character attacks to spread broadly beyond isolated enclaves.

Certainly, that's not true anymore. It has been completely democratized by social media. Now anyone can launch an attack, but just like social media has democratized who can attack, unfortunately, I think it's also democratized who can be attacked. So, we can think about these like massive public shaming’s that happen on Twitter. And Jon Ronson has written a really wonderful book called, So You've Been Publicly Shamed. But getting back to the idea Blair of the resources that you used to need to launch an attack, if you had to gather all these resources, you were likely going to aim high, right. To make sure that your attack was really going to, to do something valuable.

But now that anyone can launch an attack, ordinary people find themselves kind of in the crosshairs of public fury. And so Ronson's book has a lot of really prominent examples that we may remember for those of us that are active on social media. But the example he starts with is this woman who was a PR rep who posted what was a very tasteless joke about AIDS while she was flying to Cape Town in 2013. It's an 11 hour flight. When she landed 11 hours later, she was a complete persona non grata. And in fact, the hashtag "hasjustinelandedyet" was trending on Twitter. But fundamentally, you know, she lost her job, she suffered depression, she said she couldn't even date because people would Google her and find out that that's who she was. John Ronson has identified that this collective fury helps us feel righteous and powerful. But again, the stories he tells in that book also really show the powerful impact that we have when we sort of pile on these attacks of, you know, ordinary not particularly famous or powerful people.

And so I share that example with you, just as kind of a way to think about the shifting nature of character or assassination in today's social media environment. And yes, it definitely used to be the case that access to a lot of resources was necessary. In terms of responding to attacks and their success, of course, having access to a PR apparatus that allows you to have experts working on figuring out how to respond best, can be helpful for weathering attacks as well. But of course, that's, you know, something that goes along with this new democratization. Justine Sacco, doesn't have, you know, an army of PR reps that she has on retainer to help her weather, this reputational storm. But nonetheless, you know, the quantity of information that churns and circulates through social media, I think can help determine whether an attack is successful ultimately, right. Someone's reputation won't be damaged or saved if you can't get your message out in front of the public.

11:34: Blaire Hobbs:

Yeah. So that's getting a lot of I guess, I suppose like the medium of how the message is getting out, but I'm also curious as to the timing. I know that you've talked about in other interviews and some of your writings that timing is somewhat crucial. Could you talk about why that is the case?

11:52: Dr. Jennifer Keohane:

Yeah, absolutely. So, in addition to ethos, pathos and logos as foundations of effective rhetoric, rhetoric’s also talk about kairos, which is a term for timing. And Lloyd Bitzer, a famous rhetorician, talked about rhetorical situations as things that ripen and decay, right? Responding to an attack doesn't really get you very much, again, if your message isn't out in front of the public and if the public attention has already shifted elsewhere. So the short answer to that is yes, timing matters a great deal. And we can sort of bracket for the time being the question of whether or not to even respond to an attack, but our colleagues who study crisis communication have a lot of lessons for us here as well. And everything that they've identified in their studies on corporate reputation is useful here. And the lessons primarily indicate that communication should be quick, consistent, and often, when you're communicating to stakeholders during a crisis.

And that makes sense if we think about what we know about people, right? Uncertainty reduction theory is a fancy way of saying that people are motivated to seek answers when something's going wrong, or when something sort of doesn't fit with our preconceived stories and notions. We also often talk about, in communication, the idea of accounts; that we are seeking reasons for why people act the way that they did. And so, if you know that people's minds are sort of motivated to do this churn, then it makes sense that you would want to get a message out there quickly that you would want to try to tell a consistent story. And that you would want to kind of put yourself out there relatively frequently, again, recognizing everything that we've talked about, about information flow.

13:46: Blaire Hobbs:

Would you say that women are I guess more at risk of character assassination or that they have a higher rate of character attacks?

13:56: Dr. Jennifer Keohane:

So I think because our society has just really loved to police the appropriate behavior of women and because we've historically circumscribed what appropriate womanhood is so narrowly, I think there are a lot more pitfalls that women fall into with character assassination. So there's just a lot more ground, I think, available ground for attacking women. And because we don't have that many successful examples of women who've successfully negotiated this double bind, or women who have said, screw it, "I'm gonna do me" and been able to it to get away with that. I think not only is there more ground to cover here, but it's far more difficult to maneuver around for women.

Again, because the characteristics of leadership are sort of, and I guess I should say leadership at the high political levels. And you know, this bears out in business too. I think the numbers might actually be worse in terms of how many Fortune 500 companies are led by women than compared to, you know, women representatives and congressmen. Although of course, the fact that no has cracked the glass ceiling to become president is a pretty powerful indictment of the way that we think about leadership. But the qualities of leadership are sort of automatically gendered masculine. And so again, as I said, like the ground to cover and the challenge of navigating out of it, I think do make women, particularly women seeking political power or business power in traditional terms, at a very high risk for character assassination.

15:41: Blaire Hobbs:

And I just wanted to talk about too, we don't have to go too far into it. But the concept of cancel culture, which I would think of as a more modern concept. But I would, I would think you would say it's a version of character assassination. But I don't want to speak for you, I was wondering if you could talk about that.

16:03: Dr. Jennifer Keohane:

Yeah. So we, we at CARP Lab have really been interested in this rise of cancel culture and accusations of people being canceled and claims that people are being canceled as, you know, a form of character assassination. And certainly points to, I think some of the challenges in understanding character attacks, as you know, we typically understand cancel culture as kind of a de-platforming of losing access to an audience because folks have decided to hold you accountable for something and not pay attention to you anymore. But the truth of the matter is a lot of people who have quote, unquote, been canceled are still, multi-millionaires, still have radio shows, still have all sorts, access to all sorts of audience members on social media and that kind of thing. So, thinking about what cancel culture as a rhetorical strategy means, you know, what folks are saying when they say they've been canceled is useful.

I also think too that there are some resonances between cancel culture and earlier forms of social ostracism, like being excommunicated from a church or expelled from a particular community. So the idea of a social-collective policing its boundaries, and, you know, trying to determine who's in and who's out and using fearmongering or other types of rhetorical devices to push people out is again, you know, a form of character assassination that's as old as time. Now, certainly there are things about the current cancel culture debate that are unique. And I think social media has enabled this sort of grassroots. Cancel culture typically isn't done with the backing of state power, it's something that comes from a group of people. So social media has enabled that on a broad level. But yeah, I think about cancel culture or claiming to be canceled as a rhetorical strategy and certainly cancel culture or trying to cancel and not pay attention to someone is a form of character assassination as well.

18:19: Blaire Hobbs:

Awesome. So it looks like we're out of time for today. We've been talking to Dr. Jennifer Keohane from the Klein Family School of Communications Design at the University of Baltimore. Dr. Keohane, thanks so much for spending time with us today.

18:31: Dr. Jennifer Keohane:

Thank you for having me and for these wonderful questions.