The following article is republished with the permission of the Helsinki Committee!

Character assassination (defamation, character assassination, reputation assassination) is based on the worst qualities of the individual and of society: envy, mistrust, jealousy, malice, aggression, ignorance, credulity, and emotional insecurities, feelings of inferiority and fears.

Character assassination is a deliberate and consistent effort to undermine the reputation and credibility of individuals and organisations. The attacker seeks to weaken the relationships, the hinterland and the trust surrounding the person attacked. In the case of an NGO, it is easiest to target its leader, but the NGO itself can also be a victim of defamation.

444 has produced an excellent film on the domestic smears from the centre, entitled Untruthfully.

An NGO is legitimised by its image in the eyes of the public, it lives off it. If it loses credibility and public trust, its survival is in doubt. Moral capital is taken literally here. If an NGO is seen to be rotten, it will run out of partners, donations will stop coming in and it may close shop.

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee has considerable experience of how discredit works in autocracy and how to counter it. We will share it with you in case it is useful for you to be discredited by government propaganda.

Download our newsletter to take it with you offline!

Tip 1: Understand what's happening to you.

How does black propaganda work?

Not to be confused with information or exposing mistakes. Propaganda always has a power or domination objective. In the case of black propaganda, this can be to stigmatise, blacken, isolate, destroy the enemy, confuse, paralyse, overwhelm, occupy the audience, and distract from the things that power is wearing.

Hence the black propaganda

  • wants to appeal to the emotions instead of the intellect;

  • it operates with simplistic, generalizing, clichéd, one-sided, relentlessly offensive, manipulative messages;

  • slander alongside (sometimes justified) criticism;

  • campaigning, i.e. planned, coordinated, mass (dumping, flooding) and results-oriented.

Character assassination may not necessarily be based on lies alone. By taking actions, sentences and character traits out of context, by setting up the irrelevant as the essential, by concealing and recasting circumstances, black propaganda is even more effective, more difficult to defend against than against blatant lies.

The smear campaign tries to push our manifestations and the perception of our personality into a different space than we are used to. It shifts it from the private or civil sphere to the political sphere, or from the political arena to the moral dimension. This in itself unusual situation also contributes to the vulnerability of the civil victim.

Why are you being singled out, why are you being slandered?

You had better get it clear in your head in time: public activity, even if it is civil, is political activity. Whether you support a candidate for local government, are a trade union activist, run a singing group or a gardening club, collect signatures against the local battery factory or want to bring down the drunken pastor as a presbyter, you are participating in public affairs. Obviously, these examples represent different levels of political involvement.

In a democracy, you don't have to worry about hurting your ankle because you don't support the pro-government mayor as the leader of a folk dance group or swearing at an anti-government demonstration as a student speaker. In non-democratic systems, like ours, the situation is different.

Even in a democracy, you have to expect that stepping out of the privacy of your private life into public life will lead you into a field of debate, conflict and competition. The greater the public role, the greater the surface area that the political actor offers to his rivals. Character assassination is also a means of struggle. In democracies, this is not necessarily a bad thing, because discrediting often draws attention to real problems, even if it does so in a one-sided and exaggerated way.

In a domestic electoral autocracy, it works differently. There is not even a relative equality of arms between the attacker and the attacked. The government's power is so dominant that the discrediting of the government has hardly a chance (there are counter-examples, such as the fall of Pál Schmitt, József Szájer or Katalin Novák). In contrast, the government's black propaganda, launched on several channels and with several actors, almost always hits the target. It's as if you had to go up against a mud avalanche.

We cannot reassure you that you yourself or your NGO - which you may now believe to be inherently apolitical and thus perfectly protected - will certainly avoid the discrediting campaign of government forces. This can only be so long as the political interests of the government dictate otherwise. If it does, they will not hesitate to launch a black campaign against you.

But it is not only NGOs and their leaders who may be targeted, it has also happened to lawyers, judges, students, politicians' family members, doctors, nurses, bankers, businessmen, artists and scientists. Power is not squeamish. The ruthlessness of Black's campaigns is the nature of the system.

In principle, not being known could even protect you, because why tarnish the reputation of someone who is not known. But persistent slander can build up notoriety out of nothing, and black propaganda will destroy this created pseudo-character (which bears your name).

Tip 2: know that you are not, you will not be the only one!

Character assassinations and smear campaigns have been around for thousands of years. The methods and goals are pretty much the same. If anything has changed, it's the means.

Modern info-communication tools and social media provide the manipulator with unprecedented opportunities to spread his slander quickly, widely and with sufficient depth. If the black campaign think-tank has the same opportunities as the current government forces, owning the entire public media and most of the market media, having the entire state administration at its disposal for political purposes, and having virtually unlimited spending on propaganda, that is a truly novel situation. As is the fact that not only false, misleading statements in the media or deliberately fuelled rumours have to be countered, but also sometimes actions by the authorities (e.g. trumped-up criminal prosecutions, financial investigations, "investigations" by the Office for the Protection of Sovereignty).

Complex smear campaigns can include anonymous blog posts, newspaper articles, expert assessments, opinion polls, political advertisements, politicians' press conferences, official retaliation or illegally obtained information. A coordinated smear campaign therefore has many tools.

True, illiberal power has a truly staggering advantage over the targets of character assassination, but we are still not as tool-less as if we were living in a total dictatorship.

Protecting and restoring reputations and reputations is not easy under democratic and rule-of-law conditions, but it is not impossible under illiberal regimes. There is still a government-independent press, a functioning civil society, social media available to those under attack, fair court rulings, and European forums that can help survive character assassinations by those in power.

Tip 3: don't be alone, ask for help, find partners!

Victims of character assassination most often complain of psychological trauma and suffocating loneliness. The feelings of self-blame, shame and helplessness are crippling. This is particularly the case for those who are not professional politicians, who are not used to "mud-slinging" and who are unprepared for a series of attacks.

If you find yourself in this situation as a civilian, the best thing you can do is to ask for support right away

  • from your NGO,

  • communication, legal, psychological experts,

  • victims of previous character assassinations,

  • your NGO partners,

  • your family and friends.

This list is not meant to be in any order. You know what is more important and urgent for you, the support of your family or the advice of a lawyer. It is true that "true friends are known in times of trouble", but don't despair if not everyone is on your side. You need support, and any show of solidarity (even the smallest) will help you.

Listen to your colleagues! We are all different, some of us are defiant in the face of such an attack, others are terrified. Some are persistent, others are discouraged. Managers should keep others regularly informed, even if they make the operational decisions. Cling together, and if necessary, give each other individual help to cope. Be especially patient with each other. You may also need the help of a psychologist.

When asked for support or sympathy by victims of character assassination, be helpful and compassionate. Never feel it is unnecessary or intrusive to express your solidarity with the victims in person or in public. If only because you can expect a similar stand if you find yourself in a tight spot. Compassion and empathy are the best investments you can make to ensure that you are not left to your own devices in times of trouble.

Tip 4: you can't prepare for everything, but planning and analysing the risks beforehand can help!

Since character assassination does not necessarily have a kernel of truth, and the most vicious specific lies and specific slanders are impossible to prepare for, don't blame yourself and your peers if you become a victim. So even as a leader of a non-political NGO initiative, be prepared for this eventuality. No need to be paranoid, but caution and prudence pay off.

What can you do in advance?

  • Walk in the world with your eyes wide open, monitor and assess with your peers the political aspects of your activities. If your money allows, it's good to have press coverage. Google Alerts settings can also help you to get early warning of a smear campaign against you.

  • From time to time, take stock of the risks to you and your organisation.

  • On this basis, it is recommended that you prepare contingency scenarios for some of the most likely risks. The tests will help to identify where there may be gaps in time before the thunderstorm strikes.

  • Set up a secure and fast communication channel (e.g. Signal, WhatsApp) and clarify in advance who has what responsibility and decision-making power in case of trouble. For larger organisations, it can be effective to set up a separate crisis team and clarify well in advance who will make decisions and communicate publicly.

  • In good time, review your external contacts to see who you can count on unconditionally. Donors, volunteers, other NGOs, your personal partners, international contacts, journalists, legal representatives and other experts.

  • Try to reduce the "hit surface". It is important to keep your internal communication printable (e.g. no profanity, avoid cynical jokes in internal channels). It is not easy in NGOs, but be careful about your public statements. This also applies to personal Facebook, Insta or Tik Tok profiles. Think about what you share without restriction, or what you comment on a popular post. (These precautions, of course, are not only worth following for the risk of compromise.)

Tip 5: be fast, but not fast!

Most importantly and perhaps most difficult, you and your NGO must keep your cool throughout the attack - from start to finish. Relax! If you despair, you have already partially achieved what you wanted.

On the first day:

  • Quick response. Consult others as soon as possible and your organization should hold a crisis meeting without delay. Not all character assassinations start with a volley. Sometimes they prefer to test the audience's receptiveness to smears at first, and only then increase the firepower in the campaign.

You can't rely on your decisive action to put a stop to the black campaign that's being launched. But quick detection will certainly help you to be somewhat better prepared to take the attack when it is already in full force against you. They are also shaping and changing their messages, testing what works best with their audience.

  • Revival. The best case scenario is an attack that you have already anticipated and prepared for. Even if it does, it's still worth revisiting the tasks and division of labour. An hour or two is not going to make a difference, no matter how urgent you feel the time is.

  • Discuss strategy and tactics. If you are caught unprepared, decide what you want to achieve. Don't set unrealistic goals. (See Tip 6) Think about your position, prepare a line to take or a Q&A. Try to keep your message clear and concise. It's worth taking the time to do this, because you will have to repeat it many times, if not necessarily to the public, then to your colleagues, family, civil society partners and supporters.

Any communication can be twisted, and black propaganda does just that, so be particularly careful, and take into account the views of others more than usual. When you make statements, make sure you use the simplest possible sentences, the ones that are the least likely to be cut up to your disadvantage. Also bear in mind that they may take statements out of context. Avoid irony in important statements!

It's also worth thinking about the things you don't want to talk about and how you can politely and firmly fend off a reporter who might ambush you. Feel free to reply "that's not our area of expertise" or use a short segue (e.g. "I heard that, but I think it's more important that...") to move the conversation to what you want to say.

As soon as possible, be clear about who you are responding to and who you are not. Prioritise! Propaganda media is not really about journalism, it is about serving a central purpose (in this case, discrediting you). It is not really interested in your point of view, it just wants to provoke you. It is often wiser not to waste time on it, because the better your answer, the less likely it is to be accepted. Of course, you can also share the unpublished answer on your social media platforms, and in a lucky case it will be picked up by the independent press. All this could strengthen your position among potential supporters.

  • Vision. Be sure to archive your attacks. This will come in handy later in various legal proceedings. It is not enough to save the link to the article or post, but you should record the original (with a screenshot), because it can be changed later. It is also a good idea to save threats sent by mail (e.g. email, messenger).

  • Protecting privacy. Pay particular attention to your privacy, your personal data, and it's good to look after not just your own, but also the data and photos of your relatives. Don't make it easy for provocateurs and voluntary lunatics. Black propaganda is often attacked by extremist public supporters who are not professional troublemakers, but can still be a nuisance.

  • Comment moderation. Trolls will infest your social media channels. If they've launched an attack on your person, you're better off making it difficult for unknown people to find them. Those who know you can contact you anyway.

If your organisation is the target, share the moderation hotline! It's exhausting to mow down trolls on your own. Comments that are intentionally offensive, obscene, against policy, inflammatory, etc. should be deleted, banned and reported because they are toxic. Anyone in the organisation whose person is under attack is better off not even looking towards the comments section. If this is you, don't be afraid to hand over moderation to someone else.

Tip 6: don't have too high expectations!

Don't fool yourself into thinking you can quickly repair your damaged reputation. Don't get your hopes up that you can quickly restore your pre-attack state of calm. Of course, it can happen, as black propaganda often seeks new targets, but usually nothing will ever be the same again. Neither are you. The harsh discrediting is often as traumatic as a divorce, the death of a close relative or some elemental blow. It sounds very bad, but just as we can survive these trials of life, we can also cope with character assassination.

Don't fool yourself that "you can get away with it, because they'll get bored of it". A black campaign usually lasts until the target is destroyed or attacked for some other purpose.

Don't think you can get away with a single black campaign. Today's Hungarian autocracy has its favourite targets, which it attacks again from time to time. You can be one of them.

Don't trust that those around you know exactly what is happening to you. Expect a lack of knowledge. Effective discrediting often confuses even your friends. Talk to them as much as possible, inform them of your position. Don't waste your time.

Don't stick to your crisis strategy to the hilt. This seems to contradict the fact that one of your first tasks was to develop a crisis plan. Except that defending against character assassination is more akin to a well-planned marathon run than to combat sports such as boxing. There are two in the ring here too, just in a very different league, you and the power. The golden spit of boxing legend Mike Tyson is especially true: "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face." Yes, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face. React to changing realities, be flexible and break away from the original plan when the situation calls for it. Constantly evaluate your own decisions and your opponent's maneuvers.

As a seasoned commentator, don't think routine will be enough. This is a situation like you've never been in before. You are upset, hurt, angry. Most people have already expressed a strong opinion about you, and a damning one. This should be reversed or at least not made worse. The most important thing is to keep the trust of your supporters and partners. It is often best to put this in writing, and to respond to journalistic enquiries in writing.

Tip 7: take advantage of the attention you are getting!

After all the difficulties, here is an opportunity. You can also use your increased attention and visibility to draw public attention to your activities and the cause you represent.

The attack may also attract the attention of potential supporters who were not previously aware of your work. Our experience has been that donations increase. There is no shame in taking advantage of the opportunity.

Publicity is often a protection in itself. Maintaining awareness requires determination, flexibility and resourcefulness. Actively resisting, framing slander will take up a lot of your time, but it makes sense because it strengthens your backbone, increases the commitment of your supporters.

In addition to the traditional communication work (statements, open letters, press conferences, background talks, counter-campaigns on social media), you can organise solidarity actions, events, boycotts, petitions, etc.

Tip 8: litigation is an option, slow but useful

One of the most important is to decide whether to take legal action against lying and defamation. Your decision will have long-term consequences: expect a protracted and often costly process. Do not expect a quick result.

If this is the case, why is litigation still considered a relatively effective way of combating defamation?

  • You show your opponent and your audience at the same time your determination, that you will not be deterred because you have the truth.

  • An independent court is, after all, an objective forum where the predominance of power can no longer or less prevail. Here you have a chance to be judged fairly.

  • With a good judgment you help others like you, and you give a signal to the powers that be that character assassination can at least have legal consequences - in terms of money or moral rewards - after the fact.

  • A verdict in your favour, vindicating you and condemning your opponent, often takes a heavy psychological burden off you. We have often seen our clients feel a sense of relief after a favourable court decision.

It is important that you only enter into litigation if you are persistent. Avoid going to court if you see no chance of winning the case in the first place. This does not mean that you are not right, because often it is the most insidious slander that cannot be challenged in court.

Don't forget also that the court's (otherwise correct) assessment is that NGOs are public actors, and so are their leaders, so they have to tolerate criticism, sometimes even disingenuous criticism, better than private individuals.

What procedures can be envisaged?

  • A press-correction lawsuit. This starts by writing to the editorial board to correct "so and so" in response to a false statement of fact. So this cannot be used in the case of an opinion or value judgement. You have 30 days after the original publication to do so. Here too, it is advisable to act as quickly as possible. If the media service provider refuses to do so within five days, you can go to court within 15 days of receiving a response. If you win, you must send a corrective statement to the lying media outlet. This is the quickest procedure, but it also takes several months to reach a final judgement, and it hurts the character assassin the least. Compared to you, he hardly cares about his reputation.

  • Personal lawsuit. If you think your right to a good reputation has been violated (the NGO has one too!), you can bring a civil action. You need to specify exactly what criticism you have a problem with - if it is sufficiently offensive and a deliberate misrepresentation, you don't have to swallow it. If the court still treats it as value judgements, opinions (or opinions with a factual basis), you don't win (unless the criticism is unduly offensive, degrading, reputationally damaging), if it is purely a false statement of fact, you win. Proceedings can drag on for years, but in addition to a finding of infringement, an apology and an injunction against future infringement, you may also be awarded non-pecuniary damages, known as "damages awards".

  • Defamation and libel. This is now a criminal offence. It starts with a complaint, which you have 30 days to make from the moment you become aware of the allegation. In our experience, this route rarely leads to success. However painful this may be in a particular case, it is actually right, because expression of opinion should be sanctioned by criminal law only in exceptional circumstances. That is why we only recommend it in exceptional cases.

In addition to the above, there are a number of softer legal procedures that can be initiated (e.g. with the Ombudsman, the Electoral Commission, the National Media and Communications Authority, the National Authority for Data Protection and Freedom of Information), but these are unlikely to be successful in the current illiberal circumstances.

We have repeatedly said that you should always consult experts before making strategic decisions. This is also true when it comes to the Hamiltonian question of "to litigate or not to litigate". If you go to court, in many cases a legal representative or lawyer is mandatory anyway (or if not mandatory, highly recommended). You can buy their expertise on the market, but there are a few civil lawyers who can help you for free. Contact us if you have a case and our workload allows, we will help you.