A smear campaign, also referred to as a smear tactic or simply a smear, is an effort to damage or call into question someone's reputation, by propounding negative propaganda. It can be applied to individuals or groups. Common targets are public officials, politicians, political candidates, activists and ex-spouses. The term also applies in other contexts such as the workplace. The term smear campaign became popular around 1936.
A smear campaign is an intentional, premeditated effort to undermine an individual's or group's reputation, credibility, and character. Like negative campaigning, most often smear campaigns target government officials, politicians, political candidates, and other public figures. However, private persons or groups may also become targets of smear campaigns perpetrated in companies, institutions, the legal system, and other formal groups. Smear tactics differ from normal discourse or debate in that they do not bear upon the issues or arguments in question. A smear is a simple attempt to malign a group or an individual with the aim of undermining their credibility. Smears often consist of ad hominem attacks in the form of unverifiable rumors and distortions, half-truths, or even outright lies; smear campaigns are often propagated by gossip magazines. Even when the facts behind a smear campaign are demonstrated to lack proper foundation, the tactic is often effective because the target's reputation is tarnished before the truth is known. Smear campaigns can also be used as a campaign tactic associated with tabloid journalism, which is a type of journalism that presents little well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines, scandal-mongering and sensationalism. For example, during Gary Hart's 1988 presidential campaign, the New York Post reported on its front page big, black block letters: "GARY: I'M NO WOMANIZER." Smears are also effective in diverting attention away from the matter in question and onto a specific individual or group. The target of the smear typically must focus on correcting the false information rather than on the original issue. Deflection has been described as a wrap-up smear: "You make up something. Then you have the press write about it. And then you say, everybody is writing about this charge". Smear tactics are considered by many to be a low, disingenuous form of discourse; they are nevertheless very common.
In many countries, the law recognizes the value of reputation and credibility. Both libel and slander are often punishable by law and may result in imprisonment or compensation or fees for damages done.
Smear tactics are commonly used to undermine effective arguments or critiques.
was the victim of a smear campaign during the 1960s, when he was campaigning for car safety. In order to smear Nader and deflect public attention from his campaign, General Motors engaged private investigators to search for damaging or embarrassing incidents from his past. In early March 1966, several media outlets, including The New Republic and The New York Times, reported that GM had tried to discredit Nader, hiring private detectives to tap his phones and investigate his past and hiring prostitutes to trap him in compromising situations. Nader sued the company for invasion of privacy and settled the case for $284,000. Nader's lawsuit against GM was ultimately decided by the New York Court of Appeals, whose opinion in the case expanded tort law to cover "overzealous surveillance." Nader used the proceeds from the lawsuit to start the pro-consumer Center for Study of Responsive Law.
In 2011, China launched a smear campaign against Apple, including TV and radio advertisements and articles in state-run papers. The campaign failed to turn the Chinese public against the company and its products.
Spiritual leader Sathya Sai Baba was accused of fraud, sexual abuse and other misconduct. Baba described the allegations as a "smear campaign". He never faced any investigation and the critics were criticized for lacking any proof against him.
In 2016, Brad Pitt was the target of a smear campaign related to his child custody dispute. Pitt was alleged to have acted inappropriately during an argument with his 15-year-old son.
, a British parliamentarian, accused Russia in 2012 of orchestrating a smear campaign against him because of his criticism of Vladimir Putin. In 2017 he alleged that other British officials are vulnerable to Russian smear campaigns.
In January 2007, it was revealed that an anonymous website that attacked critics of Overstock.com, including media figures and private citizens on message boards, was operated by an official of Overstock.com. Countries, particularly those outside the Western hemisphere, have accused Western powers of smear campaigns to bring down their governments. Gambia accused the United States and Britain of backing "so-called Gambians to set up organisations and media facilities to spread nothing but lies against The Gambia by making false, outrageous and unfounded statements about the state of human rights."