You're being gaslit. Do you know how to deal with it? Skip to content

You're being gaslit. Do you know how to deal with it?

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As a nation, we are being subjected to gaslighting: made to question our sense of reality via a cascade of lying and abusive behavior by our nation’s chief executive and his propaganda apparatus. How bad is it, and what can we do about it?

According to fact checkers at The Washington Post, the president has uttered almost 11,000 misleading statements since he was installed in office. This amounts to an average of slightly more than 16 falsehoods a day. Moreover, the president is supported by an apparatus of media spinners and social media warriors and artificial BOTS that amplify each new falsehood. How are we to cope with such levels of mendacity and malice?

The First Amendment protections of freedom of the press are based on the premise that vigorous public discussion and debate will ordinarily lead to truth prevailing over error and falsehood. In principle, our scientific, historical, educational institutions and a free press, especially a free press, should enable us to separate truth from fiction. In our time, this belief seems to rest on very shaky foundations.

Has this happened in the past?

A brief historical review demonstrates that conspiracy theories and disinformation are consistent features of all contemporary societies. For instance, in the case of the United States, the era leading up to the Civil War was particularly fraught with conspiracy theory allegations on both sides of the increasing divide between North and South. In fact, Zaraefsky (1990) observes that two of the seven of the debates between Araham Lincoln and Steven Douglas in the 1858 Senate race were centered on the trading of conspiracy theory allegations.

Holocaust deniers provide a more current example for reference because they have been in circulation for so long. Holocaust deniers want to rehabilitate Hitler’s reputation. European countries such as Germany and France responded with laws that impose criminal penalties on those who deny or significantly diminish the facts surrounding the Holocaust. However, in the United States, the First Amendment provisions of freedom of speech limit the responses of guardians of historical fact to mostly informal remedies that do not rely on legal sanctions.

In the past, fact-checking via the press was an obvious first line of defense. However, it is increasingly clear that fact-checking alone is very inadequate. Merely cataloguing and publicizing false factual claims seldom leads people to correct their false beliefs. Also, emerging research confirms and quantifies our perception that social media is accelerating the breadth, depth, and velocity of the distribution of fake or false news.

So how can we defend our social discourse from a deliberate and escalating cascade of false information? If we are going to practice informed self-governance, what must we do about the growing problem of gaslighting?

Three possible responses to gaslighting

One can distinguish between three basic categories of response when it comes to responding to persons or groups who are spreading disinformation: ignoring it, systematically checking and refuting each instance of it, and selectively refuting particular examples of it. Each can be advocated as an appropriate response in some situations. Better yet, though, is a mixed-method approach that employs facets of each approach in an overall package.

Ignore it

Ignoring false rumors and their purveyors may be best approach for historians and other guardians of fact when the false information seems to be getting little public traction. Giving attention to such disinformation provides additional publicity and perceived legitimacy to a matter that will simply fade away on its own accord. Most false rumors and disinformation disappear into the ether. However, even in this case, social institutions need to be attentive to monitoring the social environment to be able to distinguish when false information is gaining momentum so that its spread can be blunted or thwarted.

Refute it

The approach of systematic refutation is the approach taken by fact-checkers such as The Washington Post fact-check team. If a rumor gains any traction or circulation, they document the history of when and how the false information originated and circulated, and then debunk it. This approach is very thorough, but also very costly and demands continual vigilance.

Systematic fact-checking is an important part of the overall process, but it is also problematic in that fact-checking is a reactive activity, that merely responds to the initiatives of falsehood entrepreneurs. If one claim is disconfirmed, it is quite easy for falsehood purveyors to merely manufacture new claims.

Moreover, many suspect that a high volume of falsehoods can evolve into a strategy of sorts. Each day a new falsehood or outrage displaces the last one, but effectively keeps any single falsehood from raising outrage. Moreover, a high volume of falsehood can be used to normalize and rationalize the phenomena (e.g., everyone knows that all politicians lie, so nothing to see here).

Refute it – but be selective

The approach of selective refutation addresses this reactivity problem by focusing on undermining the credibility of falsehood entrepreneurs. This is done by developing in-depth cases that show HOW disinformation peddlers operate, and by choosing significant targets rather than trying to deal with every falsehood.

This approach is well illustrated by the Discovery Channel program Mythbusters, who elected to “bust” the claims of people who claimed that NASA faked the lunar landings in the 1960s and 1970s. The Mythbusters team was given access to NASA facilities to discredit several of the more outlandish claims made by lunar landing hoax conspiracy theorists. The program hosts explained that selective refutation was necessary because there are thousands of claims of anomalies by moon landing hoax theorists. Disproving all of them is impossible. The Mythbusters episode was particularly effective because it refuted the selected conspiracy theory claims in visually compelling ways that lay audiences could easily understand.

What should we do in our current situation?

So what mix of responses would I recommend to the journalists and fact guardians to deal with current wave of gaslighting?

Fact-checking may seldom change partisan minds, but we need to continue checking facts and refuting falsehoods. There are many people who are interested in finding the best-available honest and objective information, as is shown by the wide popularity of Snopes.com. Society also needs a carefully documented historical record of what is occurring for the purposes of posterity. There is no better time than the present to document these patterns. Recognizing this, the Washington Post has offered to make its presidential misstatements database open to academic researchers.

Several aspects of the ignore response also seem appropriate in the current situation. Joe Scarborough recently wrote that we need to listen to the news like we listen to a scratchy AM radio station during a thunderstorm: ignore the noise and focus on the signal.

For instance, it is time to ignore spokespersons and media spinners that have demonstrated that they are not trustworthy. There is no need to seek out comments from persons that routinely repeat the lies and amplify on them (e.g., Kelly Conway & Sarah Sanders). Ignoring certain types of stories also seems to be in order. If the President tweets misinformation that has already been debunked, what news values are endangered by not reporting it?

On the selective refutation front, it would be instructive to develop case studies of the major categories of Trump’s lies, and develop a narrative of HOW the president and his surrogates have lied in specific well-known cases. Sticking with examples of how the president lies and deploys his lies over time (e.g., Obama’s birth certificate) could go a good ways toward creating the type of “presence” that is needed to focus the attention of fair-minded citizens. It is simply not the case that “all politicians continually lie.”

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Dealing with the Big Lie

There is also an effective means for dealing with the most pernicious kind of falsehood: the falsehood that is repeated over and over until the repetition itself convinces many people that the falsehood is true. Washington Post fact checkers now call this kind of falsehood the “Bottomless Pinocchio.” Persuasion researchers call this the approach “Inoculation Theory” after the medical practice of vaccinating people with the proteins of a dead or severely weakened virus, so that a person’s immune system recognizes and immediately attacks a live virus when encountered.

Inoculation theory was developed as a tool to strengthen a person’s pre-existing beliefs against counter-persuasion efforts ( i.e., to persuade a person to not be persuaded by future persuasive efforts). The inoculation treatment consists of two parts: (a) forewarning people of the counter-persuasion efforts they are going to encounter, and (b) providing information that refutes the counter-persuasion effort. In other words, tell people what falsehood they are likely to hear, and provide evidence for why it is in fact a falsehood.

The inoculation effect has been researched in a large variety of persuasive settings over a 50-year period, including settings like political debates and advertising. Both parts of an inoculation message increase resistance to persuasion, but merely forewarning people of this effect has the greater relative efficacy. This approach only works if the misinformation is repeated, but in our current state, we can predict with considerable precision which specific lies are likely to be repeated because they have been repeated many times up to the present.

Finally, re-invigorate the free press

The most important response to the constant barrage of mendacity, however, is an institutional one. We must reinvigorate our free press.

On the surface, papers like The New York Times and The Washington Post seem to be doing well. Down the journalistic food chain, however, the picture is rather grim. Our metropolitan and local newspapers, in particular, are under incredible duress. Advertising no longer pays the freight for newspapers, much less independent news sites. This means that we as consumers must shoulder the responsibility of paying for good objective reporting, especially investigative reporting.

Public radio has probably developed the most sustainable model for journalism in this vein. Forward Kentucky itself is an example of a conscientious effort to combine objective reporting, progressive commentary, and in-depth policy analysis in one site. It is a local institution devoted to reporting and commenting on Kentucky politics and policy. If we want to reclaim and renew the promise of political renewal in our state and country, we need to support these institutions, especially with our financial support.

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Reference: David Zarefsky (1990). Lincoln, Douglas and Slavery: In the Crucible. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.



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Greg Leichty

Dr. Greg Leichty is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Louisville, in conflict management, argumentation, and qualitative research methods. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)

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The Daily Wrap for Monday, 5/20

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A very light news day, with most of the focus on the arrest of the golfer at the PGA last week. Of note, though, is Heather Cox Richardson’s summary of President Biden’s commencement speech at Morehouse.

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