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
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.
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.