Character assassination (CA) is a rare topic in communication studies. Episodic research has addressed the use of character assassination in television news during international conflicts (Samoilenko, et al., 2017); negative campaigns and their effects on voters’ attitudes and behavior (Malloy and Pearson-Merkowitz, 2016); and the perception of character traits and personal values of CEOs during corporate crises (Seiffert-Brockmann, et al., 2018). These studies are traditionally grounded in social psychology and focus on the functional application of CA strategies.
Unfortunately, this approach to character assassination does not sufficiently explain the socio-cultural realities in which CA processes take place. This chapter advocates for a paradigm shift toward the sociocultural tradition of communication. It argues that character assassination needs a broader conceptualization outside of psychological theory. Character assassination is intrinsic to any social process that involves strategic communication, competition, or conflict. CA actions in social groups and institutions produce issues and events that further shape the sociocultural order, including ideological and power relations in society. As such, character assassination contributes to the modes of structuration to produce and reproduce social structures, as well as to induce social change. Acknowledging those contributions, this chapter examines character assassination as a structurational phenomenon.