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In Politics, what is Swiftboating?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Swiftboating is a slang term which is commonly used to refer to an especially vicious and public smear campaign against someone. The term has its roots in 2004, when an organization called the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth accused Presidential candidate John Kerry of lying about his military service in Vietnam. By 2005, newspaper columnists were using “swiftboating” to describe prominent smear campaigns. This slang term has attracted some controversy, with a number of people, including John Kerry, pointing out that they are disappointed to see the famous Swift Boats of the Vietnam war linked with smear campaigns.

This term is often used to describe campaigns which are marked by ad hominem attacks and other tactics which some people think are below the belt. Such tactics rarely prove the point of the organization running the negative campaign, but they can sometimes be very effective, as they appeal to basic beliefs and values. Many swiftboating campaigns are also marked by underhanded dealings and information gathering techniques which are not entirely ethical.

Some people use the term specifically in context of military service, reflecting the original swiftboating campaign mounted against John Kerry. Others use it more generally, with an emphasis on negative public relations campaigns which are very public, and sometimes very ugly. Such campaigns can be run by any number of people, from private groups attempting to smear public figures they don't like to politicians, who often use aggressive tactics to cut down opponents.

Swiftboating has been made much easier with the medium of the internet, which allows for the rapid distribution of information to people in a wide variety of places. Campaigners often take advantage of the fact that people often accept published material on the internet as fact to spread lies and misinformation, and many are well aware that well crafted lies can take months or years to untangle.

Swiftboating is not limited to socially prominent people. Almost anyone in the news can be targeted, even if they appear only briefly. For example, in 2007, a boy named Graeme Frost made a well publicized appeal to then-President of the United States George Bush, asking him not to veto a bill to expand healthcare coverage to children and using his own history as an illustration of why the bill was important. Within hours, sleuths had dug up information about Frost and his family, publicizing information about the cost of their home and the fact that the children went to private schools. As a result of this swiftboating campaign which was designed to undermine Frost's credibility, the family was deluged with emails and phone calls. Because the family was totally unprepared for the onslaught, lacking the high powered public relations teams of politicians and people used to such campaigns, the situation rapidly became extremely stressful and unpleasant.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon184472 — On Jun 08, 2011

As you can see by the comments here, swiftboating has devastating effects on a person's reputation.

By anon20836 — On Nov 07, 2008

The concept of "Swiftboating" is the product of a liberal/leftist propaganda campaign to pejoratize and denigrate those who would dare expose facts about the lies being promulgated by leftist-supported politicians.

By anon20827 — On Nov 07, 2008

Were the allegations of the Swift Boaters false?

If not, is it improper to counter the claim of heroic service used as a campaign message? Are the past actions of a candidate not useful information for voters? Of course, lying is not acceptable, but is common. Exaggeration is also common as is quoting out of context.

Live by your armed forces service-die by it if it based on falsehood.

Kerry wanted to work both sides of the street-be a hero and then come home and trash his fellow service people. Dirty pool.

By anon20825 — On Nov 07, 2008

I agree with screen writer. The returning VietNam veterans were treated shabbily by many in this country and they should hang their head in shame. We should be out there supporting each and every one of our young men and women who put their life out on the line for us and others. I can only say that I am ashamed of the way that the VietNam war was handled in general and I still remember what they did to our young people. Semper Fi

By screenwriter — On Nov 07, 2008

As a VietNam veteran who served honorably, I can tell you upon returning home the degree of anger and hostility I received from my fellow citizens was palpable. Many of my fellow returning veterans were treated so shabbily that they left the country.

For any years I didn't know anything about John Kerry's incriminating testimony to the congress.

It was a betrayal of enormous proportion and scurrilous in that he was reporting rumor not from observation. There are two sides to every story.

John Kerry's service deserved scrutiny.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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