Gaslighting is a psychological term that we hear more and more. It covers serious emotional and mental abuse, a manipulation technique whereby the perpetrator controls the victim by invalidating their perception of reality. In particular, the term political gaslighting is spreading in a new wave of political science mainly in Western Europe and the United States.
However, it is just as present in Eastern Europe even though the concept is unfamiliar to us yet. The question arises: is this a new concept, or we have just started to call a long-standing phenomenon by a new name? How much legitimacy does it have in the political arena and what effect does it have? Is it a serious threat to democracy? How should we defend against it? These are some of the questions this article seeks to answer with examples from the Eastern half of Europe.
Psychology Before Politics
The term has roots in the psychology of the 1960s. Its name derives from a film version (Gaslight) of a 1938 play (Angel Street) in which the husband attempts to have his wife diagnosed as mentally ill and taken away to an asylum so that he can obtain her fortune. It so accurately portrayed the controlling and toxic actions that manipulative people use that psychologists and counselors began to refer to this type of emotionally abusive behavior as “gaslighting”.
According to the psychological literature, gaslighting is a form of emotional manipulation in which a person or a group aims at having the victim question their judgment, perception, and sense of reality by deliberately and systematically feeding false information.
Autonomy fundamentally depends on self-trust, and if it damages epistemic autonomy suffers, what is the main goal of the abuser. The victims often feel confused, anxious, disorientated and not sure about themselves. They lose all self-confidence and become emotionally vulnerable, dependent, and completely subordinate to the abuser. As a result, they accept the reality presented by the predator as their own, and with that, the abuser gains full power over them.
Those who structurally suffer testimonial injustices, for instance, will typically also be more vulnerable to gaslighting. But it can work in any case where the victim is epistemically, emotionally, or prudentially predisposed to believe the gaslighter.
The most common manifestations are recurrent lies, the discrediting of memories or critics, trivialization of thoughts and emotions, distraction, and rewriting history. It is most common in romantic relationships, but it can also occur between friends, colleagues, or family members especially when there is a hierarchical or dependent relationship between the parties. Therefore, it’s a documented phenomenon in psychology, but how is a form of relationship abuse linked to politics?
Playing with Mind of Whole Society
It was only in the 21st century that political analysts began to use the term more frequently, mainly in connection with populist or radical politicians, parties, or campaigns. It has been associated with the expression of post-truth politics and has received particular attention during the Trump presidency.
In contrast to the original concept, political gaslighting divides the actors into a political and a collective (usually community or group) actor, where the political actor uses the tactics to destabilize and disorients public opinion on political issues.
However, in the political arena the voters’ loss of self-confidence may not be the primary goal but just as with individual gaslighting, one of the central underlying motives seems to be about gaining and keeping power. The general intention is not to win over the individual but collectively over the entire society. The public’s perception of reality must be shaped by the political interests of the abuser to gain control through the votes.
The political gaslighters are after control – winning an election or save face after losing one, or they may want to push through a policy without too much resistance, or it could be in their best interest to oppress a part of the population – achieving by silencing dissent, obscuring inconvenient facts, and disorienting people so much they long for securities and strong leadership. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Staying with examples that affect all nations equally, we only need to think of the various government communications that have appeared in recent years on the coronavirus, climate change, or various acts of war or terrorism. While politics in general may be an abstract concept for some of us and their narrative may be outside our everyday lives, we have experienced many of the three problems listed above, firsthand.
There is a high possibility that we or our surroundings have had COVID-19, or that we have experienced the increasingly hot summers on our skin, and that we have had access to on-the-spot reports of the acts of war. Yet we have often been faced with government communications that contradict our direct experience.
New Concept or Just New Name?
After clarifying the concept, we are faced with two problems. First, it is unclear whether the term can be used in the political arena since it is only with a considerable adaptation that we can succeed in giving it a psychological definition. On the other hand, the formulation of political gaslighting raises the question of whether it is worth mentioning an element at all, that is almost necessarily implicit in the functions and objectives of general and political actors.
In modern political competition and communication, it is a known challenge for the actors to get their narrative accepted by the community, as this is how they can justify their actions or programs. If we look at it from a purely pragmatic point of view – that political actors are in the business of gaining power – then understandably their primary goal is to reconcile their perception of reality with their actions as credibly as possible, and only as an optional secondary goal is to communicate the truth. This seems to be a direct and obligatory precursor to the political gaslighting.
You May Also Have Bad Relationship with Government
The main argument against the use of gaslighting in the political arena can be the change of actors. It’s a fact that relationship between perpetrator and victim is not a personal one in this case. However, the possibility of individual and group gaslighting is already mentioned in psychology, and it is even common among domestic abusers, dictators, narcissists, and cult leaders.
Thus, the fact that we are not talking about individuals with individual interests, but about a political entity and a collective group of voters, does not in itself make the phenomenon impossible. Rather, the plurality of individuals within the group makes it more difficult to influence the oppressor, but if he finds a suitable channel for the false messages, a collective distortion of reality can be created.
In return for the difficulty of access more new items can be added to the toolbox and the base position is strengthened; the unconsciously processed messages are more easily conveyed through political campaigning and the media, its themes have greater creative power, they can go beyond ordinary, as they can raise issues and build false foundations that the victim has not previously encountered.
This could be the inclusion of completely new themes, such as the presidential campaign poster of Andrej Babiš in the Czech Republic, bearing the slogan: “I will not drag the Czech Republic into war.” The slogan presupposes an opinion – which does not have to be the opinion of the voter – which it refutes, creating the idea that there is a realistic chance of the Czech Republic getting involved in a war.
Moreover, the power of collective influence should not be underestimated. It is a well-established truth that people are adaptable, tend to adopt their beliefs from the testimony of others and in groups their opinion according to the opinion of the majority in most cases. This makes political gaslighting easier because the gaslighter doesn’t have to convince everyone one by one if the majority’s perception of reality is distorted, the minority is more likely to follow, just as political status is enhanced if there is social acceptance behind it.
Another counterargument could be that communication is one-directional. While the political side can reach the voters, the voters do not have the opportunity to express their views, so there is no surface for the transmission of the reality to be changed or for reactionary persuasion.
Although there is no direct dialogue in the classical case, the political party can find out about the opinion of the electorate through opinion polls and forums, and direct communication is possible through social media pages and campaigns. There is also the possibility of reality-creation without a direct channel, moreover, the indirectness of the channel makes it easier to lose confidence.
The presence of political gaslighting is also confirmed by the hierarchy between the actors because the manipulator holds power over the victim just by virtue of the political office they hold, and the respect and admiration this office may command. The voters are subordinate to political bodies that can make decisions about the life of the community without their say, and this is further distorted by the significant information gap.
While in an abusive relationship, for example, our subordination may be because we think our partner is smarter than us, or “they know better anyway”, in political gaslighting, the knowledge of the related issues is held by the political party – for example, what foreign policy discussions have taken place, what survey has been done – so we have no way of refuting. Not to mention that politicians, whom many people look up to, admire and trust, contradict themselves with so much confidence, citizens understandably start questioning whether they just heard that correctly, and possibly conclude that they have misunderstood.
Gaslighting is therefore a tactic of manipulation in the political arena, but a less visible one, which cannot be eliminated in advance, only softened by democratic institutions and consciously defensive voters. As in human relations, what counts here is the unwritten ethics of communication, how consciously and purposefully the authority wants to use the instrument.
In the case of relationships, it is recommended to leave the gaslighter, but not caring about the gaslighter’s opinion and ending the relationship is more difficult when that “person” has great political power. Democratic institutions are currently unable to protect voters when politician authority seeks to enter an oppressive relationship with them.
„All Politicians Lie”
For the 21st century, we can say that a large part of societies is tired of politics, or more narrowly, of the difficulties of democracy. Our basic assumption is that all politicians are liars, all parties are corrupt, and democracy is only good for voting for the lesser evil based on little information. If we add to this the basic premise that one of the main functions of politicians and political parties is the acquisition of power, which they can achieve by gaining votes, we can easily reach the point of considering political gaslighting as a fundamental tool for gaining votes.
After all, the point of a party campaign is to raise and keep on the agenda the issues that are important to the parties, so that they can credibly communicate their sense of reality to the electorate. The question rightly comes to mind: is political gaslighting not a basic pillar of modern politics?
Nowadays, especially with the increased popularity and promotion of negative news, it can feel as if it is only the parties that influence voters, set and shape the agenda. The situation is further aggravated by the growing willingness of ambitious politicians around the world to abandon the standards of behavior that kept their predecessors in check, in some cases grossly undermining press freedom.
For example, it is in the interest of radical, anti-vaccine parties, like the Hungarian party, “Mi Hazánk” to portray the coronavirus as the most debilitating disease possible and the governmental restrictions on it as the most harmful. Since the scientific position contradicted this, they had to spread disinformation and false facts to maintain their self-definition.
However, it is important to bear in mind that the other main function of political parties – according to political science – is advocacy, and they can only gain power through political empowerment by the voters (in democracies). Thus, despite impression, parties respond to voter behavior, adapting to their values and not the opposite just as “Mi Hazánk” also did not invent its view out of the blue, but reacted to the opinion of a radical group of Hungarian voters.
Certainly, parties have ambitions to change those existing values and attitudes, and narrative creation is an indispensable element of modern political competition and communication. Still, the use of false narratives and targeted manipulation is a matter of choice, not definition, and its success depends largely on the electorate. In summary, gaslighting in political discourse is not a new strategy but effectiveness varies, while the danger is constant, so it deserves attention and needs further examination.
Is Political Manipulation Gaslighting?
Of all the attempts to change values and attitudes, political gaslighting is more than simple manipulation and is particularly immoral. Manipulation targets the conscience while gaslighting attacks the consciousness.
Both are a hidden type of emotional abuse, and both aim to gain control over the victim but while manipulation seeks to achieve this in specific cases with an ideal outcome, gaslighting is not an incident, but a process, an attempt to steadily undermine a person’s epistemic, using among others the tool of manipulation in order to achieve total control over the victim. That is why, in contrast to manipulation, the systematic construction of lies and deliberate misleading is a mandatory element. On the other hand, manipulation is characterized by softer techniques than gaslighting, such as distorting, silencing, or timing the true elements, which does not destroy the victim’s entire worldview.
In contrast, in the case of gaslighting the victim reaches the ideal conclusion or action for the perpetrator not by following a guided path, but by completely losing belief in their perception and, no longer having any faith in themselves or their judgment, can do nothing but accept what the perpetrator tells them.
Fortunately, the most illustrative example is not from reality, but from George Orwell’s famous book. In the 1984 there are three imaginary super-states (Oceania, Eurasia, Eastasia) engaged in an ongoing war, but there is no tangible evidence of the actual existence of the opposing powers, and the ally-enemy relationship is constantly changing. Under the influence of artificial fear and hatred, citizens adapt to the “changes in the battlefield” without further ado and reverse their position day by day.
How Do We Lose Self-Confidence in Political Situations?
This can be achieved by a variety of techniques; some are well-known, and some are difficult to recognize, and usually more than one technique is used at a time.
First, the tool of gaslighting can be propaganda familiar to all of us. It’s the dissemination of direct or indirect information to influence public opinion using facts, arguments, rumors, half-truths, or lies. It is difficult to identify propaganda on a case-by-case basis, it includes many elements, but as the media is the best platform to disseminate this, the media’s lack of independence leads to suspicion.
A press that highlights government failures is essential to the functioning of any democracy, but (mostly populist) leaders can intentionally declare the critical media, weakening credibility and making citizens unsure of whom to believe. On this issue, Eastern Europe (especially Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Poland) lags in all democracy indexes.
Discrediting may indicate political gaslighting. It can usually target political opponents or critical voices with the intention of sideline and silence those individuals and institutions that tend to disagree. Where whole institutions or groups (media, experts, opponent party etc.) are under fire, they rarely suffer a loss of self-trust because of these attacks, but the main victim is public.
If the experts’ authority is questioned for the wrong reasons, those who would normally rely on their expertise are epistemically isolated. When this trust is allegedly shown to be unfounded, the public will start to doubt their own ability to tell who a trustworthy authority is. Unfortunately, I think we can find an example of this in every political campaign when contradictory polls are published about the actual results.
Serial lying or denying facts can be another sign of gaslighting.The first years of the coronavirus epidemic were prime examples of this. At that time, the political parties incorporated the fact of the epidemic into their self-definition in various ways, and then for years afterward they continued to insist on the assumed identity, even in the face of scientific evidence to the opposite.
It may seem unlikely that more extreme cases where plain facts are blatantly denied (“the coronavirus does not exist”) will have any effects on self-trust. But for those who are already confused and disoriented, such a move might lead them to question their own senses and sanity, especially if others around them act as if nothing strange has happened or even repeat the denial.
Political analysts also classify distraction here, which diverts attention from the truly unpleasant to the neutral, or seemingly more negative, or hides it behind so much data that it loses sight. It can be observed in speeches and programs, but the legislature is where it is most visible and accessible.
Political power often makes several laws on the same day, one to change a long-term issue that may affect society, the other to deal with a symbolic issue affecting the lives of only a small section of society, or maybe not even affecting it. The second, however, is so ideologically unacceptable that it becomes the agenda of the media, and when there is civil resistance (protests, petitions, etc.), it is based exclusively around it.
The so-called omnibus act that is mending several pieces of legislation together follows the same principle. We could observe a major attempt at this in December last year, when the Hungarian government passed the law “Modifying Certain Laws for the Security of Hungary”, which, among other, largely unrelated things, completely changed the basis of Social Law, so that the entire care of the destitute was transferred from the state to family members. It is easy to see how this single paragraph will rewrite the social thinking of the whole country and affect the lives of thousands in need.
Such means may include deliberate misinformation, fake news or counternarratives. These “kinds of stories” are particularly dangerous because they can simply lie or can be so extreme that not even try directly convincing just disorienting people. As difficult as it is to provide convincing evidence, it is much easier to create doubt and it is helped by the fact that the truth is often nuanced, messy, or even boring.
On the contrary, distracting attention with exciting and outrageous fiction is usually quite simple. So, the important thing is not to get as many people as possible to believe the particular narrative but rather to get as many people as possible to doubt the truth. The more such misinformation is out there, the more people will start questioning the truth. The Ukrainian-Russian war is a sad example of this, when the attacker tries to present the same destroyed city as his own loss, shifting the responsibility to the defender.
Each of these help the gaslighter to undermine the epistemic self-trust of their victim, but it’s important to note that not all examples above are automatically considered gaslighting. It always depends on the scale and purpose andusing the term too lightly would be offensive to victims.
For example, the simple motivation behind an omnibus act may be the need to discuss important issues in a fast legislative framework, or the reason behind unintentional misinformation may be harmless misunderstanding or under-information. But in any case, we should be aware because almost all successful gaslighting attempts involve a combination of strategies.
Does It Burn Down Democracy?
From a strictly political science point of view, political gaslighting does not necessarily destruct democracy. It is a political system under which all citizens – who are legally entitled to vote – are free to express their views in periodic elections, and one definitional disadvantage of this, is that it allows certain people to misinform and certain people to be misinformed.
Sadly, the fact that it does not directly damage democracy does not mean that it is not harmful to it. In most cases, political gaslighting entails the erosion of democracy, so it is a threat at least. Where this tool of politics is frequently used, it tends to hinder the democratic functioning of institutions to make political gaslighting easier to “deploy”.
For example, to spread fake news and propaganda independent media may be shut down or restricted, their dissemination may be covered up by corruption, or the government may block the dissemination of other parties’ narratives by depriving them of resources or rights through party funding or party establishment laws. Therefore, the danger is real, and no policy instrument seems to have been developed to address it.
Does Help Come from Outside?
Social media platforms – like Facebook and Twitter – are great tools for anyone looking to spread false information so it provides an easily accessible interface for political gaslighting, just like the democratic system. The entry threshold for participation is low in both cases, but rather than 18 years of age and nationality to register on social media platforms, you need an email address and a password of your choice and reach the designated age limit. However, from the “systems oversight” side, there is a big difference in motivations and options.
At first, big tech companies took little responsibility for the credibility of the information on their platforms, but in recent years they have bowed to pressure and taken the lead in the fight against misinformation. On the positive side, the primary compelling force has come from the motherlands of the user citizens, with the European Union and America at the forefront.
Of course, this does not mean that there are no initiatives on the political side on its own to regulate fake news, but there are no uniform and proven methods of regulation, so their success is questionable, while social media platforms (after internal and external pressure) can play a more powerful role than any current democratic political actor in managing disinformation.
Even though Facebook is still profiting from the number of users nowadays is no longer to maintain its existence and gain public trust, so it can also devote energies to the realization of ideological and moral issues. This could be seen as a kind of Maslow’s pyramid reinterpretation: social media platforms with a market base and a firm footing can choose not to worry about personal survival but to turn towards post-materialist goals, while for politicians, whose power is based on popularity, this decision must be made at a significant sacrifice because they always must deal with an election to win first.
The operators of Meta Platforms (parent of Facebook and Instagram) are now aware of the dangers of unrestricted news and are currently experimenting to control and sanction the most obvious fake news. One example of such “fake news” was the misinformation spread about the coronavirus epidemic (vaccines, efficacy, and side effects) or about the presidential elections in general. Since data in the latter category is more difficult to verify, and often not even clearly false, but rather conveys a misleading, self-serving reading, news reports about mismeasured or misreported current results or policy are good examples of political gaslighting.
Sanctions are still in their infancy, and repeated requests can result in a profile or page being suspended. Yet the issues are not yet fully developed, and in the social sciences such as politics they are particularly unstable since the human sciences make it difficult to establish objective truth which is a feature of the natural sciences. This reinforces the feeling that although the process has started and the direction is right, the problem must be solved from the very heart of politics.
Democracy Can Do Justice
Democracy is more relevant in the context of political gaslighting as a means to defend citizens against it. Although specific policy instruments to prevent or punish political gaslighting have not been perfectly developed, it seems evident that strengthening democratic frameworks reduces its scope.
Reducing power imbalances makes people less vulnerable to gaslighting so, the overall solution would be transparency, accountability, and accessibility in the political arena and as a society, we should try to encourage and equip people to develop intellectual confidence.
How to Protect Your Sanity
Luckily, although the democratic system is not yet prepared for this kind of challenge, we are not completely unarmed in ourselves. It is not necessarily irrational to lower one’s self-trust in a specific domain if given good reasons to do so but we must notice when the aim is to influence us for selfish purposes.
The key – as in psychology – is recognition, it might be a crucial first step in empowering ourselves to resist gaslighting. To do this, we must first acknowledge that we are exposed to the dangers of political gaslighting and receive the information with this in mind. The most important and effective strategy is therefore to raise awareness.
It is advisable to read the various news portals with a critical approach in the first place, but if we come across a news item, speech, or poster that seems to be wrong or just suspicious, it is worth thinking about what and why it has triggered the negative feeling in us. Is it really what the poster is aimed at, or is it the poster itself that we find wrong? Awareness can also be raised by providing information in advance.
If we already have a general opinion about the issues that concern us, formed through experience and research, then information about them can only shift or reinforce the basic idea. Faced with a completely new, unfamiliar topic, we are more likely to be influenced by the first impression, especially if it takes the form of the negative campaigning so often used in the political arena. For both preliminary and ex-post information, it is always wise to use several sources.
This means not only different types of media (television, newspapers, websites, etc.) but also foreign and domestic sources, as well as the different manifestations of political sides; it is not a cliché that the truth is usually somewhere in the middle. At the same time, when fewer resources are either available or only accessible, it is always worthwhile to give preference to direct sources, like field reports and the opinions of the experts in the field on the policy in question. And finally, choosing to limit your news consumption and refusing to argue is your right, so it could always be an option.
- Bryant Welch (2008):State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind
- Cambridge University Press (2021): Post-truth Politics and Collective Gaslighting
- Purdue University Press (2020) President Trump’s First Term, Chapter: Farah Latif: Political gaslighting in the climate change discourse surrounding the 2016 election