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The rapid rise of gaslighting

It is imperative that societies start imposing high costs and severe consequences to organizations and individuals who deliberately and continuously disseminate false information. Hard, but not impossible

Gas street lamps illuminate the St. Louis district of Missouri in 1962.
Gas street lamps illuminate the St. Louis district of Missouri in 1962.JMH (AP)

At the end of each year since 2003, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary announced its selection of the English word of the year. According to the respected dictionary founded in 1831, “gaslighting” was the most searched-for word on the internet in 2022. Peter Sokolowski, the dictionary’s editor, told the Associated Press that this year searches for the word increased by 1,742%. The editor also noted that it was in the top 50 most searched-for words every day.

“Gaslighting” is a colloquial way of referring to the tactics and tricks used to make a person doubt their reality and question what they feel, believe and do. The purpose is to weaken the victim psychologically in order to influence their perceptions, behavior and decisions. This idea was originally used in a play that opened in London and New York in 1938 and was later brought to the big screen in 1940 in Britain and remade in America in 1944. The film, Gaslight, tells the story of an unscrupulous husband who sets out to manipulate his wife to the point where she begins to believe she is going crazy. Among his many tricks, the husband rigs the gas lights in the house to turn on and off when his wife is there alone.

The list of tactics used by the modern gaslighters is long and nefarious, but includes contradictions, confusion and skepticism about the validity of previously unquestionable truths which are then replaced with false narratives. There are also attacks on the person’s self-esteem and the exploitation of their insecurities, along with the concealment of information and the constant use of falsehoods.

The word had fallen into disuse until the mid-1990s, when it became popular among psychologists and psychiatrists.

But the explosive increase in the frequency of internet searches for the word does not only come from these areas, but also and in a massive way from politics, where gaslighting is shaping what entire societies believe. In fact, gaslighting is closely related to another word that, in 2016, was selected by the Cambridge Dictionary as the word of the year: post-truth. This is the propensity to accept an idea as true based on emotions rather than facts. In recent years and in many different countries, we have seen how public opinion has been influenced by leaders and groups that disdain data, evidence and even logic. A dramatic example of both gaslighting and post-truth is Brexit. Its promoters made intensive use of gaslighting tricks and managed to create a public opinion matrix dominated by post-truth. Famously, when Minister Michael Gove, one of the Brexit leaders, was asked about a study by respected experts showing how dire it would be for the UK to break ties with Europe, his reaction was simply: “People in this country have had enough of experts.”

Attempts to influence the opinions and behavior of a society (or part of it) are, of course, nothing new. And propaganda has always been an indispensable tool in political contests. Today, however, propaganda, post-truth, large-scale dissemination of lies and gaslighting have acquired unusual power and toxicity. New technologies and a plethora of social media platforms allow individuals and groups to play a role that was previously only available to governments, political parties or corporations.

We have already seen the dire consequences of the use of social media to deepen divisions, spread lies and foment chaos.

It is urgent that we protect societies from the harmful use of these new platforms.

To achieve this, it is imperative that we impose high costs and serious consequences both on digital offenders and on those who facilitate their unacceptable behaviors. It is encouraging, for example, to see how US courts have imposed multimillion-dollar fines on Alex Jones, a deplorable figure convicted of defamation against the families of the children murdered in the Sandy Hook school massacre. Likewise, there is very important ongoing litigation by Dominion Voting Systems against Fox News, a company that, according to Dominion, dedicated day after day of programming to lying about the unreliability of its voting systems and causing the company considerable harm. Even Donald Trump is finally beginning to pay the political costs for gaslighting the American public with his lies about electoral fraud, which have most recently included his request to suspend the US Constitution. Only by imposing high monetary, legal and reputational costs will society be able to defend itself against the modern manifestations of large-scale use of gaslighting.

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