A smear campaign is an activity that has as the main purpose to present arguments against someone and then diminish the person’s public image. The practice brings to the surface the conflict between truth and lie. It is more than anything an instrument of manipulation and whoever has the strongest proofs (or the most controversial ones), wins the battle.
Smear campaigns (“campanha difamatória” in Brazilian Portuguese) can be defined as a strategy used against a competitor – it can be either a company or a person, in case of politics. The disclosed information can either be truth or false and the campaign itself can be the manipulation of an image, the use of a sentence without providing the proper context in which it was pronounced (this is how many newspapers produce controversial headlines, for example) or the disclosure of information that incriminates someone.
The practice is not limited to the disclosure of confidential or private information, but the use of this information in the propitious moment. That’s the case of a Costa Rican vice minister, Karina Bolaños, who was fired from her job after a personal video recorded in 2007 became public in 2012. At the occasion, Karina claimed that she had been a victim of blackmail for one year.
Smear campaigns can also be used as an attempt to decrease the usage of products that can be harmful, such as cigarettes. In Brazil, every package of cigarettes has an illustration of the damages caused by the consumption of tobacco, as we can see in the article “Restrictions to advertisement in Brazil”.
The two sides of the story
Of course, no victim of a smear campaign would approve the practice, but the strategy has its defenders. Those who see the practice as benefic guarantee that it is an instrument of democracy as it provides the two sides of a person or product and allows the consumer to form a better founded opinion.
Those who are against it claim that the practice is very similar to blackmailing and has no other purpose than harming and taking advantage of an aspect of somebody’s life that would be completely irrelevant in another context.
That’s the case of racist smear campaigns that took place in the US. About.com has published a top 5 “Racist Republican Smear Campaigns in the 21st Century” that included rumors about Barack Obama’s birthplace; Michelle Obama’s supposed hate against white people; and John McCain’s black daughter, who was pointed out as the result of an affair.
Smear campaigns in Brazil
Every other week in Brazil we hear that an act of corruption from a public person was discovered. What we rarely ask ourselves is how much of this information is true or how this information was acquired in the first place. Brazilians seem to have a certain tolerance to crimes against privacy as long as they aim to a “greater cause”, which is to disclose a practice of corruption.
What is not taken into account is that, in many cases, in order to have access to this information that would incriminate someone from committing a corruption crime, another corruption crime would be required, such as bribery to have access to confidential information in order to find out e-mail passwords or wiretapping telephones.
Famous examples or smear campaigns
Candidate to the prefecture of São Paulo city, Russomanno was very likely to go to the run-off election (in Brazil there are more than two candidates running for president and mayor), but after the disclosure of several “compromising” information, such as the proximity of the candidate with a major church in Brazil and his performance as a lawyer without having received the proper education for it, he lost at least 10 percentage points in a very short period of time.
The former governor of São Paulo state once posed for a picture with a gun on his hands. This picture was used several times as a way to express Serra’s supposed violent and aggressive administration.
The former presidency head of office, Rosemary is being investigated by the Brazilian Federal Police due to a crime of corruption. The evidences used against her are the e-mails she has exchanged with other people involved in the crime.
The soap opera broadcast on the prime time of Globo TV has been a victim of smear campaigns on social networks. Some protestant Christians claimed that the name of the soap was an worship to a Spiritism god and as they only worshiped Jesus Christ, the soap should not be watched by any Christian.
President Dilma Rousseff
By the time of the presidential elections in Brazil, several facts of Dilma’s past as a militant against the Brazilian dictatorship were disclosed by the opposition, presenting the current president as a terrorist.