Gaslighting is a colloquialism, loosely defined as making someone question their own reality.
The term may also be used to describe a person (a “gaslighter”) who presents a false narrative to another group or person which leads them to doubt their perceptions and become misled (generally for the gaslighters’ own benefit), disoriented or distressed. Generally, this dynamic is only possible when the audience is vulnerable, such as in unequal power relationships, or when the audience is fearful of the losses associated with challenging the false narrative. Gaslighting is not necessarily malicious or intentional, although in some cases it is.
Gaslighting is more likely to be effective when the gaslighter has a position of power.
In the 2008 book State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind, the authors contend that the prevalence of Gaslighting in American politics began with the age of modern communications:
To say gaslighting was started by… any extant group is not simply wrong, it also misses an important point. Gaslighting comes directly from blending modern communications, marketing, and advertising techniques with long-standing methods of propaganda. They were simply waiting to be discovered by those with sufficient ambition and psychological makeup to use them.
The term has been used to describe the behavior of politicians and media personalities on both the left and the right sides of the political spectrum. Some examples include:
- “Gaslighting” has been used to describe Russia’s global relations. While Russian operatives were active in Crimea, Russian officials continually denied their presence and manipulated the distrust of political groups in their favor.
- “Gaslighting” has been used to describe how leaders and followers of sectarian groups ensure the conformity of any potentially deviating members.
- Columnist Maureen Dowd described the Bill Clinton administration’s use of the technique in subjecting Newt Gingrich to small indignities intended to provoke him to make public complaints that “came across as hysterical”.
- American journalists widely used the word “gaslighting” to describe the actions of Donald Trump during the 2016 US presidential election and his term as president.
- “Gaslighting” has been used to describe state implemented psychological harassment techniques used in socialist East Germany during the 1970s and 80s. The techniques were used as part of the Stasi’s (the state security service’s) decomposition methods, which were designed to paralyze the ability of hostile-negative (politically incorrect or rebellious) people to operate without unjustifiably imprisoning them, which would have resulted in international condemnation.
In popular culture
In 2017, Harvey Weinstein orchestrated extraordinary efforts to undermine the perceptions and reality of women he sexually preyed upon, the journalist’s investigating their stories, and the public. He hired Lisa Bloom, the high-profile attorney who represented women sexually abused by Bill Cosby and women who accused Bill O’Reilly, and Donald Trump of sexual misconduct, for her expertise, including intimate knowledge of how to prey on the vulnerabilities of sexual abuse survivors. Journalist Ronan Farrow has alleged that NBC did not air his investigation of Weinstein because Weinstein threatened to disclose the sexual indiscretions of NBC’s The Today Show host Matt Lauer and MSNBC’s president, Phil Griffin. Farrow also alleges that Weinstein retained intelligence/espionage firm, Black Cube, to uncover vulnerabilities to dissuade journalists who were closing in on Weinstein from going public. Weinstein granted interviews to the New York Post to tout his contributions to society including helping women advance in Hollywood and his work on a charity concert that raised $100M for the 9/11 first responders through the Robin Hood Foundation.
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The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory – Cultural Marxism