Character assassination is the attempt to discredit a person through damage to his or her personal character. This tactic is often used to harm an individual for spite or personal gain, in situations as small as a classroom rumor mill, or as large as a national election. When character assassination is attempted through the use of lies, gross exaggeration, or misrepresentation of facts, it may be considered slander or libel, and may sometimes result in legal charges.
In general, the goal of character assassination is to cause some harm to the target as a result of the stories or rumors. For instance, in a political election, a candidate may try to damage an opponent's reputation by claiming he or she is estranged from family members, or has a history of marital affairs. The rumors spread do not necessarily need to be related to the issue at hand, such as whether or not the targeted individual would make a good mayor or governor; instead, they need only to cause voters to question whether the target adheres to culturally acceptable moral and personal standards.
In smaller settings, such as workplaces or schools, bullying tactics may take the form of character assassination. If a student wishes to get revenge on a foe, he or she may spread rumors that the person takes drugs, is sexually promiscuous, or cheats on tests. While these tales may seem frivolous, they can cause the targeted individual to experience scorn and mistreatment from peers, and can lead to social isolation and even depression. In the workplace, rumors about a co-worker's personal life can not only be harmful socially, but may damage career prospects within the industry.
Character assassination is frequently associated with political and public figures, and has long been a mainstay of election drama. In mid-20th century America, during the height of McCarthyism, many innocent people found their jobs terminated for the mere suggestion, without proof, of Communist affiliations. Election campaign advertisements, while often skirting direct accusations, frequently stress negative aspects of a candidate's character in order to create a more flattering picture of his or her opponent.
While some attempts at character assassination may pass on verifiable information, those that deal in lies and exaggerations run dangerous close to illegality. Knowingly and maliciously spreading lies is illegal in many regions, and may result in criminal charges levied against the instigator. Slander and libel laws aim to prevent character assassination through lying, but are charges are often difficult to prove in court.