The gaslighting of America

gaslight (v.): To manipulate someone into doubting their memories and their perceptions of what is true.

Amid all of the jaw-dropping news that’s been happening lately, here’s a doozy. During the presidential election campaign, teenagers in Macedonia made money by churning out fake news stories designed to be read by millions of people as they circulated on social media.

What’s going on? Well, the truth — as so often is the case — is complicated.

Outright lies and twisted reality

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In case you’re wondering where the term “gaslight” comes from….

Did the fake news stories (including, for example, a report that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump for president) tip the election to Trump? I seriously doubt it. Even the most gullible American voters probably had already made up their minds to vote for one candidate or the other.

On the other hand, is Mark Zuckerberg kidding when he says that Facebook — which pushed the stories into users’ newsfeeds — has virtually “no influence” on the people who use it to get news? Maybe he’s kidding himself. But everyone else knows better.

You should care about this, no matter who you voted for. The fake stories slanted toward both the left and right wings (although the right-wing ones reportedly gained a lot more traction).

Presenting phony news side by side with legitimate news. The beginning of the gaslighting of America.

Now we’re seeing reports from the mainstream media — not from kids in Macedonia — that treat the preparations for Trump’s presidency as if they were a normal transition of power.

As if it were normal to install Breitbart’s Steve Bannon, an outspoken white supremacist who’s called for “tearing down” the political establishment, as the chief White House strategist.

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The look of someone who’s compromised every last one of his principles (source: Washington Post)

As if it were normal for the Speaker of the House, who over the summer denounced Trump’s words and actions as the “textbook definition of a racist comment” and a “joke gone bad,” to say that he’s enthusiastic about carrying out the “mandate” that Trump has received from the American people.

(Joshua Foust of the Foreign Policy Research Institute has compiled a much longer list of abnormal goings-on.)

These stories are being reported as business as usual, with barely a raised eyebrow.

Reporting the abnormal as if it were normal. The next stage in the gaslighting of America.

What are we to do?

Just in case you’re wavering: the crap you saw on Facebook was false. And the facade of respectability being applied to the Trump transition is false too.

So what can we do to stop the gaslighting, to overcome the lies and the distortion?

For most people, boycotting Facebook isn’t an option — although if you’re using it as a primary news source you might consider changing your approach.

We can demand openness from Facebook and other social media platforms. We can ask how certain content gets placed in front of us, while other content is suppressed. We can support reasonable proposals (they’re out there) for flagging information sources as reliable or unreliable.

As Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Information and Library Science, wrote in the New York Times:

Only Facebook has the data that can exactly reveal how fake news, hoaxes and misinformation spread, how much there is of it, who creates and who reads it, and how much influence it may have. Unfortunately, Facebook exercises complete control over access to this data by independent researchers. It’s as if tobacco companies controlled access to all medical and hospital records.

Now, more than ever, we must apply our critical thinking skills. When you read a news story, ask whether the source is credible. If anything about the story seems doubtful, verify it using a reliable source like Snopes. Check to see that the story is even current: lots of misleading “news” articles are based on events that happened months or even years ago, and are being reported out of context.

Perhaps technical communicators, as a commenter suggested on my recent blog post, can set an example, using our skills at uncovering facts and thinking critically.


Truth isn’t a piece of clay that can be molded into whatever people want other people to see.

Truth, as the Bible says, will make us free. The converse is true as well: distorting truth, or trampling it, will enslave us.

Truth is worth fighting for.

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14 thoughts on “The gaslighting of America

  1. stevefjongSteven Jong

    Larry, I share your frustration. Things got so bad on Facebook that I saw a post from a friend of mine passing along something false refuted (by Snopes) IN THE NEXT POST. Mark Zuckerberg is indeed talking out of both sides of his mouth, because his own ad sales team went to political campaigns and said Facebook can influence elections.

    Pew Research found that almost half of US adults get their news from Facebook (http://www.journalism.org/2016/05/26/news-use-across-social-media-platforms-2016/, and see what I did just there?). Whether they think so or not, Facebook is a news outlet, and it’s high time that they developed editorial and advertising standards.

    Another underlying problem, shared by both Facebook and Google, is the targeted feed. When you tell Facebook you want to see either more or less of something, you change what you see (excuse me, your “news feed”) going forward. Likewise, when Google discerns a pattern in your searches, it gives you more like you’ve searched for in the past. If you search Google for “Mexico” and click on travel links, those results are moved up, while clicking on “drug cartel” links promotes those results instead. Eventually, whether you believe Mexico is a great place to vacation or a crime-ridden hellhole, you will be able to “prove it” using Google.

    Grooming your results is a choice on Facebook, but automatic in Google; but on either platform, AI is waiting to gently usher you into a truth bubble. No wonder we have a partisan divide! But I’d like to think truth is a nonpartisan issue.

    Reply
    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Steve. Yes, truth is nonpartisan. Thanks for a succinct, real-world description of how Facebook and Google push us into “truth bubbles.” And thanks for the link to the Pew article: this is an issue that all social-media platforms need to address — but Facebook especially because so many people use it to get news.

      Reply
  2. Mark Baker

    Larry, I think there is an important lesson here in how communication strategies can backfire. There is much uproar at the moment about inflammatory rhetoric from the right, but the left has been just as bad, though in a different register. The tactic of the left in American politics (and in Canadian politics too, to a lesser extent) for some time now has been to shame opponents into silence. Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” and Van Jones “whitelash” are prominent recent examples. But the pervasive willingness of commentators on the left to throw around words like “racist”, “sexist”, “homophobic”, and “xenophobia” as an immediate and unthinking response to virtually any position they disagree with is just as vitriolic. It is an ad-hominem attack that basically dismisses the person they disagree with as stupid and hateful. It is an attempt to win the day by claiming that they have the monopoly on intelligence and compassion and therefore dismissing contrary opinions as unworthy to be heard.

    There are two problem with this strategy. First, it throws truth out the window just as surely as disinformation because it makes the argument not about truth but about who has the right to an opinion.

    Second, and more topically in the current climate, it makes it impossible to engage with whole classes of people. Once you have shamed someone into silence by calling them hateful and ignorant, you have shut off any chance of persuading them of anything. You may succeed in having them kowtow to your will and acquiesce in your programs, because they lack the energy to push back against the wall of shame you have thrown up. But that does not mean their resentment and sense of alienation is now growing, even if their initial disagreement with you was small.

    And this creates the perfect environment for the rise of a man who cannot be shamed. And it makes it impossible to answer the shameless man effectively because you have so deeply alienated the people his is talking to. He does not have to be rational or consistent to appeal to them, he just has to make them think that he does not dismiss them as stupid and hateful. (And yes, this means that the truly stupid and the truly hateful will rejoice in him as well.)

    Just so we are clear, my attitude to this election (from abroad) is a plague on both their houses. But I am struck by the failure of the American left (and, I think, the conventional right) to see how the rhetoric of shame created the audience for Trump. It has been amusing, and kind of terrifying, to see them double down on the same communication strategy since the election.

    The first step on the road to truth has to be to assume the goodwill and intelligence of your interlocutor. If you don’t treat the person you are speaking to as if they were an intelligent person of good will, you are not going to listen to them and they are not going to listen to you. That gets harder when decades of condescension, condemnation, and ad hominem attacks have forced discourse to the extremes, but doubling down on the rhetoric that got you to that point is certainly not going to fix it.

    Reply
  3. Larry Kunz Post author

    Thanks, Mark.

    First, it throws truth out the window. Yes.

    Second, it makes it impossible to engage with whole classes of people. Yes — and the resulting polarization is exactly as you describe.

    Third, if you call everyone a racist or a crook (to pick just two), you have no words left to call out real racists and real crooks when they appear on the scene.

    Reply
  4. Mark Baker

    And even then, if we want to persuade them to become honest and just men, we may perhaps not want to open by sticking labels on them. There is a huge difference between an individual act being discriminatory, or an individual word being painful, and someone being and irredeemable racist. There is a huge difference between an individual act being dishonest or an individual statement being untruthful and the speaker being an irredeemable crook. Plank in one’s own eye, etc.

    If your aim is to get others to shun or ignore them, of course, rather than to reform their behavior, then different tactics may be effective. The problem with this approach arises when you accidentally do it to half the electorate. You can ghettoize the few, but, in a democracy at least, you get into trouble when you (accidentally or on purpose) ghettoize the many.

    To their credit, Clinton, Obama, and Ryan seem to have realized what Reid clearly has not, that at this point it is too late for shaming and time to try to reform. (And there are signs that Obama and Ryan may be having some success.)

    Reply
  5. Ray

    Larry, thank you for this piece. I spent election night with a bunch of American colleagues at the TC World conference. At 2:30pm German time, we went to bed believing that Clinton was in the lead, and woke up a scant few hours later to the awful opposite truth.

    What you say ties closely with my own post, on a different subject, relating to the Big Lie. Mark also chimed in with a variation he called the Big Sneer, also an important aspect of modern politics, alas.

    I think Mark’s comment about ad hominem attacks is totally to the point. Politics in all the Western countries, but especially in the U.S., it seems to me (also from outside), has been marked by growing invective that replaces serious discussion of issues.

    The dominant meme is, “If you don’t agree with my position, you are not only a bad person, you are surely a traitor to your country.”

    The other day, the Oxford English Dictionary presented a new term, “post-truth.” We are living in the “post truth” era, where opinions and emotions count more than the facts. That is very scary.

    Reply
    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Ray, thanks for stopping by to share your thoughts. I agree: the notion of a “post-truth” era is frightening and dismaying. I recall your commentary about how some very vocal individuals, like the Brexit Leave cohort, are driving wedges and causing people to be suspicious of anyone who is different. I recommend your Big Lie article to anyone who hasn’t read it already.

      Reply
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