[Dr. Welch] cites instances of smear tactics and negative campaign ads as contributing factors to gaslighting. Even though we (the general public) may feel we are intelligent enough to recognize character assassinations as manipulative – they still have devastating consequences for their victims and lasting subliminal effects on our attitudes towards their targets.
Gaslighting is a form of mental abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory, perception and sanity. Instances may range simply from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred, up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim. The term “gaslighting” comes from the 1938 play Gaslight.
The term is used in clinical and research literature generally in the context of abusive relationships but it can also be applied in the context of media propaganda.
A good gaslighter will make all efforts to control the environment of their victim so the lies and manipulations go unchallenged. In the scenario of an abusive relationship this might mean limiting the victim’s contact with friends or family (isolation). In a geopolitical context, things like censorship and disinformation are used to control environments.
The book State of Confusion by Dr. Bryant Welch, (2008) discusses gaslighting in regards to US media and its effects on the American public. Dr. Welch is an American psychologist and attorney who spent half of his 30 year career in Washington DC working for the American Psychological Association.
He explains that the human mind does not cope well with uncertainty. It will always gravitate towards a reality that feels correct based on our own perceptions but that may not be actual reality. He goes on to explain that it is much easier to gaslight someone who has dealt with some sort of traumatic situation.
A mind that is already on shaky ground will grasp onto any scenario that seems accurate, as long as it simplifies a confusing situation.
He also cites instances of smear tactics and negative campaign ads as contributing factors to gaslighting. Even though we (the general public) may feel we are intelligent enough to recognize character assassinations as manipulative – they still have devastating consequences for their victims and lasting subliminal effects on our attitudes towards their targets.
“State of Confusion” focuses on US politics & media manipulation, pre-Obama. We were curious to know the author’s thoughts on international gaslighting practices so we emailed him. His reply:
“The most apparent aspect of international gaslighting to me is the use most authoritarian regimes make of simply asserting a false reality and then “mandating” that people will treat it as true. After a while it becomes very destructive for people. This has happened in most authoritarian regimes.” – Dr. Bryant Welch
It would seem logical that people living under repressive governments are much easier to gaslight. Countries dealing with wide-scale censorship are not informed and without correct information there can never be any true debates on issues.
Discussing authoritarian regimes, we might instantly think of countries in the Middle East or maybe China, but in terms of censorship we must also put USA into this category. US media is heavily sanitized. For example, US mainstream media rarely if ever shows dead bodies where in other countries the gory realities of death, destruction and war are shown in broadcast media. We have noticed on the Revolution News facebook page, our US fans are far more sensitive to images showing blood and death.
There is a fundamental problem with sanitizing media to the point that media consumers never view a realistic representation of events like the aftermath of a drone strike or photos of torture. If those victims are not represented in mainstream media then the public becomes disconnected from the reality of human suffering. If MSM were to give equal airtime to victims, the public might feel empathy and not blindly support when their government starts up a fresh round of drone strikes.
Gaslighting & Propaganda in Social Media
It has become increasingly more difficult for governments and mainstream media to control news narratives with the advent of social media.
Social media has revolutionized the media landscape. We are in the middle of a media revolution right now and it’s a pretty exciting thing. Previously, the news would report events on our TVs and radios (in varied degrees of truth) but now the audience talks back – and talks to each other. When MSM misrepresents something, we can count on twitter to make them correct their narratives. Social media is breaking the spin cycle.
Unfortunately social media is also an easy platform to spread propaganda and misinformation. An interesting example of this is found in Sara El-Khalili’s study of the counter-revolutionary propaganda that was spread on facebook by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which ruled Egypt for a transitional period of 16 months after Mubarak stepped down. Analysis of SCAF facebook posts shows subtle changes in their rhetoric over time.
“SCAF published communiqués extensively during the first few months. A total of 93 communiqués were published in 2011 alone with the year 2012 witnessing a significant drop in the number communiqués which only reached 11 in total. Although SCAF issued 26 letters in February 2011 alone, the number and frequency of its communiqués dropped significantly reaching their lowest in the month of October with one communiqué only (Naguib, 2011).
A careful reading of the SCAF’s 93 letters reveals a shift in its discourse, particularly in its understanding of its role vis–à–vis the revolution, its perception of national interest and its depiction of the revolutionaries” (Naguib, 2011). In her article ‘A year in review: the SCAF rules in 93 letters,’ Rime Naguib (2011), noted a shift in SCAF’s discourse. A gradual and total evolution: The military started with guarantees of protecting and fulfilling the demands of the revolution, shifted to maintaining stability and “the unity of the national fabric,” and finally threatened to use an iron fist against protesters who are disrupting social peace. SCAF legitimized its threat saying it was safeguarding the state and “higher interests of the country.”
Our own sources in Egypt told us the SCAF facebook posts regarding the Jan25 revolutionaries went from a love letter to a hate crime. We have heard unconfirmed reports that facebook pages were infiltrated by government agents and that admins of Egyptian facebook pages were paid off to spread certain messages and gradually alter their discourse to tow the government line and smear activists and protesters.
We might notice if a facebook page or twitter account was supporting one clear position on Monday and completely changed course on Tuesday. We would not as easily spot a shift in discourse if it was spread out over 1-2 years, gradually seeding information to influence public opinion. This is a clear example of gaslighting in social media and the effect of it (besides 42,000+ activists, protesters and journalists currently in Egyptian jails) is a public that appears to blindly support a military dictator who is far worse than the dictator they unseated in 2011.
What are the expected results from gaslighting?
From a clinical standpoint, usually a gaslighting victim becomes anxious, depressed, confused and demoralized. When gaslighting is done effectively the victim is rendered incapable of logical thinking and relies solely on the gaslighter to dictate what is “real.” A properly gaslighted victim feels helpless to rebel against the gaslighter.
Perhaps the most insidious aspect of gaslighting is that when it is done well, it is so subtle that the victim never knows they have been gaslighted. To an outsider, someone who has been gaslighted might appear slightly crazy and that’s exactly the intended result.
Please note, we are not suggesting that some Illuminati lizard people have intentionally manipulated the public and it’s important to not give credence to conspiracy theories, especially in an environment laden with propaganda. As Dr. Welch explains in his book:
“Political gaslighters have consciously and ruthlessly tried to impose a reality beneficial to their own cause without regard to the long-term psychological effect their behavior has on the individuals they are trying to influence.”
Overcoming the effects of gaslighting
So how do with fix this mess? If we add censorship, media distortion and propaganda to swirling conspiracy theories, the end result is a clusterfuck of extremely misinformed people not to mention anonymous masses of victims we know nothing virtually about.
A 2008 TED talk by Alisa Miller, head of Public Radio International, is particularly revealing in regards to US media filtering. Although it’s somewhat dated, it drives home some very important points regarding international media that is broadcast to US audiences. Not much has changed since 2008, most MSM still recycle news stories picked off international news wires like Reuters and AP news service and fail to put those stories into any meaningful context.
Overcoming state censorship is key in undermining gaslighting efforts. Recognizing when narratives are being manipulated in the media is also important. Perhaps most important is understanding that the truth in all news events is always much more complicated than the simple narratives that are broadcast on the evening news.
Erin Gallagher is a multimedia artist, translator and writer for Revolution News.