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  • Ruby McClinton

Gaslighting, explained.

Updated: Apr 25, 2023

By Ruby McClinton

Following the victory of Joe Biden in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, former President Donald Trump lobbed an incessant attack on the truth, claiming Biden had not won and that the election "was stolen" from him through widespread voter fraud.

Despite numerous ballot recounts and investigations that revealed no voter fraud of any sort, Trump and his allies repeatedly made false allegations of election tampering - even going so far as to file frivolous lawsuits to appear genuine.

Through a combination of social media posts, press conferences, and rallies, Trump spread a false narrative that the election was rigged and he was a victim of the worst kind of fraud.

Then on Jan. 6, 2021 - the day Congress was to verify the election results - Trump gathered his supporters in Washington D.C. and urged them to "fight like hell" to overturn the election.

It was the ultimate gaslighting from a president who had mastered the practice during his time in the White House.

But this time it had real-world consequences.

Thousands of Trump supporters stormed into the Capitol building that day, attempting to disrupt the certification process.

The protest became a riot that resulted in the deaths of five people and proved the feared vulnerability of American democracy.

Defining ‘gaslighting’

In 2022, the Merriam-Webster dictionary announced “gaslighting” as its word of the year.

Merriam-Webster defined the term as the “psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one's emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.”

Dr. Katy Flagler, Ph.D., a psychologist in Asheville, North Carolina, has a very similar definition.

“It’s an emotionally abusive tactic that makes the victim think he or she is crazy, and makes the person question their reality or perceptions,” Flagler said.

The term is derived from the 1944 George Cukor film Gaslight, which is about a young girl, Paula, who unfortunately witnesses the murder of her aunt and is then sent away to Italy.

During her time in Italy, she falls in love and marries Gregory Anton. The two soon return to London and move into the house Paula grew up in with her aunt.

Paula begins to notice strange occurrences in the house, including gaslights dimming themselves without being touched and noises at night from within the walls.

Gregory refuses to believe Paula and keeps her locked in the house while telling others she is unwell.

It was decades after the release of the film before Gregory’s manipulative tactics became known as “gaslighting.”

The term has been adopted by politicians and media members alike since Trump entered the White House - starting with his inauguration in 2017, in which he made hyperbolic claims about the event - “it didn’t rain” or “a million, a million and a half people showed up” - insisting they were true until followers accepted his version. And when the media questioned this, communication adviser Kellyanne Conway called it “alternative facts.”

Gaslighting became so common under Trump’s leadership, it was named one of the most popular English words by the Oxford Dictionary in 2018.

But before Trump made the term a household word, it was mostly thought of in the context of unhealthy or abusive relationships.

“It's kind of paradoxical, but sometimes people feel so dependent on the person that they don't even want to know the truth,” says Flagler, “but If there's a perpetual feeling of being confused, not trusting your own judgment, feeling more and more dependent on that person, it's a sign that you need to take a step back.”

How to know if you are being gaslighted

According to Andrew D. Spear, an associate professor of philosophy at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, in a 2019 paper on gaslighting, the most distinctive feature of gaslighting is that it’s not enough for the gaslighter simply to control his victim; it’s essential that the victim actually come to agree with him.

Today people call something gaslighting even when their “victim” just simply doesn’t agree with them - which is not the accurate definition.

People in relationships often do not know the most productive ways to solve conflict, but that does not automatically mean that they are “gaslighting” the other.

But it’s important to know the difference and understand when you are being gaslighted or being accused of doing it merely as a way to end an argument.

“One sign is that you start to feel foolish and you start to question your own reality and don't want to admit you're stuck in this cycle with this person,” Flagler says, “and you also don't want people and your friends or whatever to think that you're being a fool, so you protect the person.”

Feeling confused as to why a person is making themself a victim and treating you in an aggressive manner is one of the most prevalent signs of gaslighting, Flagler points out.

“You know how a dog kind of cocks his head when he's trying to figure something out? That adorable expression on a dog's face, like “what's going on?” she said. “That kind of translates to the feeling that a person who's being gaslit feels.”

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, there are five key behaviors that gaslighters may use against their victims:

  • Withholding: The abusive partner pretends not to understand or refuses to listen.

  • Countering: The abusive partner questions the victim’s memory of events, even when the victim remembers them accurately.

  • Blocking/Diverting: The abusive partner changes the subject and/or questions the victim’s thoughts.

  • Trivializing: The abusive partner makes the victim’s needs or feelings seem unimportant.

  • Forgetting/Denial: The abusive partner pretends to have forgotten what actually occurred or denies things like promises made to the victim.

As the word has become more commonly used, it has warped and changed in meaning.

Actual gaslighting occurs when one is manipulated into turning against their own emotions and morals and become convinced they are not the real victim. This confusion often leads to them being called “crazy.”

Being in a situation where you are being gaslighted can be extremely confusing and difficult to recognize while it is happening.

The rise of gaslighting in the media

Politicians and others in power positions use gaslighting frequently to try to convince the public to believe their view - or more likely not believe what the public can see to be true.

Trump provided a master class in the gaslighting technique, beginning Day One with his insistence that it didn’t rain during his inauguration -despite live video to prove otherwise - or the common claim that anything critical of him that he didn’t like but was indisputably true to just be “fake news.”

Dr. Michael Lee, a political communication professor at the College of Charleston, discussed the effectiveness of the gaslighting tactic as a way to gain support and push an agenda.

Noting first that gaslighting is “wildly unethical,” Lee also pointed out that it’s not a very smart strategy for politicians.

“[Gaslighting] is a strategy to cultivate a very core, angry, upset, dedicated, engaged audience,” Lee explained. “Now, that's obviously true with politics as well. But typically in politics you at least have to get some other group of people who don’t or didn't necessarily vote for you to agree with you to get an agenda passed.”

Because of that, Lee said, gaslighting in politics could backfire easily. Those who might be inclined to “cross the aisle and compromise” are less likely because you're obviously lying.

“They're much less likely to do so and they'd be punished by their own constituents if they did seem to be comrades with you,” Lee said.

So the effect of gaslighting ends up narrowing the base, making the politician “less electable and less likable.”

“For that, it is wildly ineffective,” he said.

Lee believes this because the goal in politics is literally the opposite - to get voters to like you enough to support you even if they don’t fully agree with you.

However, Lee believes it is a very effective strategy for non-political figures because it allows them to solidify a core group of followers.

”You can really solicit a core audience and essentially tell that core audience that ‘I'm the only one who is gonna be faithful to you. You can't trust anything else’,” Lee said.

Social media has been an integral part of the rise of gaslighting in the past seven years.

Using platforms like Twitter or Instagram to frame the situation the way the public figures want allows them to easily gaslight large groups of people into seeing things the same way - and then ultimately supporting every move.

Lee points out that social media aids the process in two ways - amplifying the message and also making it possible that people only pay attention to messages they want to hear.

"If there's so many different forms of media, accounts, corporations telling the lie then it's easier to believe it," Lee says, noting that social psychology literature calls it flow density. "You know, if one of your friends says something is true but nobody else does it then that's one thing. But if 25 of your friends say something, that's a whole different story."

And then, he adds, it's easier for people to only tune in to what they like.

"So whether they're tuning into their favorite news channel on traditional media or their favorite podcasts or their favorite Twitter accounts or whatever, then it's easier to just sort of choose and select what you think to be true and not have to engage an alternative opinion," he said.

Not so long ago, traditional media like mainstream daily newspapers and broadcast news programs would set the "agenda" for what the "news of the day" actually was and even acted as referees for the political contentions of the day.

But with social media, suddenly the public square was different and anyone could be part of setting that agenda.

On the one hand this has brought more diverse voices and a broader experience where more voices can be heard.

But it's also brought an equal authority to all the voices, making it increasingly difficult for the public to sort out the truth.

And this has made social networks fertile ground for gaslighting as the message can be targeted over and over and to millions who won't question the truth.

Lee recalled the Trump Administration employing this tactic almost immediately, calling the notorious inauguration a “touchstone example.”

“A couple of days later, the White House issued a report saying that the crowd inauguration was much larger than had attended Obama's inaugural speech eight years prior,” he said, noting the overhead drone photos they used to try and confirm it. “When in fact, the pictures obviously showed way less people in 2017.”

Lee also explained how gaslighting is actually really dangerous for American democracy. If politicians stop caring about trying to represent their entire district/community and only pander to those who believe them, then the government isn't effective.

"It's sort of amazing that we have to even say this, but I mean, being truthful, I think, speaking to groups of people that didn't necessarily vote for you, but also might not vote for you," he said. "In other words, once you're elected to a higher office, you represent that district, that state or that nation. And that includes people who disagree with you and people who didn't vote for you."

Politicians who only rep the people that voted for them are cutting out half of the population.

"And that makes democracy fundamentally impossible," Lee said. "So if we're ever gonna get to a point where we have mutual respect for one another's ideas, we have to have leaders that do that at least."


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