Gaslighting

Some Media Outlets Are Gaslighting Us About Joe Rogan

Gaslighting is being used to manipulate public opinion and it should concern us.

Posted Jan 25, 2020

The tactic of getting people to question their direct experience is a type of psychological manipulation scientists call “gaslighting.” A person who is gaslighting an individual or group that they have chosen to target does so by getting them to doubt their own memory, perception, and reality. Through persistent lying, misdirection, and contradiction, the gaslighter attempts to delegitimize the victim’s beliefs by confusing and destabilizing them. 

The term gaslighting, which is a well-established psychological phenomenon, comes from a 1938 stage play called Gas Light, about an abusive husband that tries to convince his wife she is insane by changing small elements of their environment and insisting she is having memory lapses or delusions when she notices them. While this scheme was particularly vile, it is perhaps not as nefarious as a trusted authority—such as a nation’s president, or a reputable news outlet—attempting to gaslight the public at large. It is even worse if the gaslighting is done with the aim of influencing a presidential election.  

Unfortunately, this is exactly what seems to be happening right now. A number of prominent media outlets are gaslighting the nation, or at least attempting to, using articles and headlines that accuse comedian and popular podcaster Joe Rogan of being a racist, a homophobe, and a transphobe, despite the fact that this does not match up with reality, as anyone who is actually familiar with the podcast or Rogan himself knows.

Before we get into that, it is important to note that these media outlets didn’t just start attempting to gaslight the public out of nowhere. To me, the sudden spree of gaslighting attempts seems like they were taking a page out of President Donald Trump’s playbook. That gaslighting is a favorite technique of his is an empirical fact, not an opinion. I cite specific examples in my article for Psychology Today, “Trump is Gaslighting America Again—Here’s How to Fight It,” but most of us need not refer to it for examples to come to mind. It is hard to keep count of how many times the president has claimed “fake news” when there was direct video or transcripts to substantiate the reported claims. And a lot of us can remember the time he told an audience of supporters, “Just remember—what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening.” Had he been referring to something specific then maybe there could be some validity to the claim, but it was a general statement meant to be applied to all criticisms of him, past, present, or future. While the president may have been the first to gaslight people in such a transparent and flagrant way, it wasn’t long until others caught on.

Just months ago, a number of media outlets were running stories that were effectively gaslighting the public about the Jeffrey Epstein case. I call this gaslighting because anyone who dared to question the narrative, an objectively reasonable thing to do given all the circumstances, was portrayed as the equivalent of a flat-Earther—a conspiracy-theorist loony who was either paranoid or delusional.

To be clear, I am not saying that there was foul play involved in Epstein’s death; I am simply saying that there are more than a few good reasons to suspect that there could be, and it should be reported in a way that reflects that very real possibility. However, many Right and Left-leaning media outlets did not even bother to subtly question Attorney General William Barr’s claim that Epstein’s death was merely the result of a “perfect storm of screw ups”—even though his statement gives the rational thinker every reason to be skeptical:

I can understand people who immediately, whose minds went to sort of the worse-case scenario because it was a perfect storm of screw-ups.

But Barr is not an omniscient deity, so why is he one hundred percent certain that the “screw ups” were genuine and not intentional?

If Barr were approaching the question as a scientist or statistician, or really just a sensible human being, he would have two competing theories for the reason Epstein died: either it was a case of colossal screw-ups, or, it was a cover-up (he was permitted to kill himself or killed). Following the Bayesian approach, the standard scientific method for determining truth, we might start out giving more credence to the “screw-up theory,” since cover-ups or conspiracies are typically not the simplest explanations and therefore violate Occam’s Razor. However, as the alleged “screw-ups” begin to accumulate, one after the other after the other, the evidence grows increasingly consistent with the cover-up theory, and increasingly inconsistent with the belief that it was all accidental. Luckily, a knowledge of Bayesian reasoning was not necessary for most people’s B.S. detectors to go off, as anyone on social media could see, and that should give us hope for humanity. But it is certainly strange that regular people were more critical than a number of journalists, especially when they are supposed to be trained to search for the truth and approach improbable explanations skeptically (without being so skeptical that you ignore statistical probabilities, of course).

I do not believe that in the Epstein example the media had any intention to deceive the public at all. I believe they were deceived by Barr and other authorities and did not question the story out of fear of looking like a conspiracy theorist publication. But I cannot say the same for the most recent gaslighting attempts, which appear to be politically motivated.

I’m referring to the fact that certain media outlets, which have been waging attacks on Bernie Sanders since he took the lead in national polls a couple of weeks ago, are intentionally smearing Joe Rogan—and since Rogan recently endorsed Bernie Sanders, also smearing Sanders by associating him with some who, according to CNN, “has a history of making racist, homophobic, and transphobic comments.” Not allegedly making such comments, but unequivocally.  

Public tweet
Source: Public tweet

This is the same Joe Rogan who frequently has on African-American guests like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Mike Tyson, Dr. Cornel West, Daily Show correspondent Roy Wood, Jr., and many other black celebrities. Does anyone really believe that West, a famous civil rights advocate who criticized Barack Obama for not doing enough for the black community, would praise a racist? Rogan has also had many Left-wing politicians on his show, including Democratic candidate Andrew Yang, who he is a big fan of. With Rogan’s recent endorsement of Bernie Sanders, it should be clear which way he leans politically. If the accusations by CNN were accurate, you'd expect him to throw his support behind Donald Trump, and certainly not the liberal candidate who has been fighting for civil rights since the sixties. The portrayals of Rogan simply do not match up with reality.

Has Rogan, a comedian known for being edgy and usually high, said a few unwise and insensitive things on the air? Absolutely. But so has Bill Maher. And Hillary Clinton. And Joe Biden. And...the list could go on forever, but you get the point. Those people aren't considered to be racists or transphobes or terrible people because society has been smart enough to consider the totality of a person's statements and actions, instead of solely basing their opinions on sound bytes taken out of context. Additionally, Rogan has had a couple of downright despicable people on his show—like Gavin McInnes, founder of Vice magazine and the "Proud Boys"—and some entertaining-but-arguably-dangerous nut-jobs like Alex Jones, but we must remember it is after all a podcast. How many times did Jon Stewart have Bill O’Reilly as a guest on The Daily Show? What about letting Donald Rumsfeld come on to promote his book? Did that mean he was politically supporting those two? Of course not. And how many times has CNN had Steve Bannon on in the last few years? Is anyone that Rogan has had on really worse than that guy?

There is also this clip from Rogan's recent interview with Cornel West, in which they thoughtfully and passionately discuss the origins of white supremacy. I don't know about you, but I don't know many racists who publicly speak out against white supremacy and hang pictures of Rosa Parks on their walls. Now when it comes to the question of whether or not Rogan is a racist, should we believe a black civil rights leader, or the people who are trying to damage Bernie Sanders' reputation? 

I have known Rogan as a comedian for a long time, and have listened to at least two dozen episodes of his podcast (about 70 hours of content), and I can say that I have never heard him say anything racist, bigoted, or homophobic. If I had, I wouldn’t be defending him, as I have written countless articles about the very real problem of racism and bigotry in America for outlets like Psychology Today and Raw Story, and was interviewed by Salon about the topic. But what I have seen Joe do is criticize the over-enforcement of PC norms by the far-Left, which has been shown in peer-reviewed research to directly increase support for Trump. He has also had on a few guests who are considered Right-wing, but only a couple of them truly deserve this title—most are actually centrists or moderate liberals associated with the “Intellectual Dark Web,” who are often ex-liberal darlings now deemed controversial simply for championing free speech and the open dissemination of ideas, like Stephen Pinker. I don't always see eye-to-eye with the IDW figures, and there are at least a couple I despise, but most are simply academics making points that would have been praised by even the far-Left liberals just a decade ago. 
Besides, why in the world would a racist or a homophobe with so much influence not support Donald Trump? Why endorse the ultra-Left-wing, Black-Lives-Matter candidate? It makes no sense at all. The accusations simply don't match up with reality. 

Besides, why in the world would a racist or a homophobe with so much influence not support Donald Trump? Why endorse the ultra-Left-wing, Black-Lives-Matter supporting candidate? It makes no sense at all. The accusations simply don't match up with reality. You know what also makes no sense? Liberals not being happy that the host of the biggest podcast in the world is endorsing the Democratic nominee before an election that is sure to be a close one. 
 

Here’s the big problem with calling people racist or homophobic who are clearly not. When you do so, and then call actual racists racist—such as Trump’s senior policy advisor Stephen Miller, who was identified as pushing racist articles to Brietbart by leaked emails—the accusation becomes diluted, and it no longer has the impact it once had. I cannot stress how important this point is. It allows the bigot to say, “See! These liberals call everyone racist, even the liberal Joe Rogan! You can’t take them seriously when they say the same about me.” And for a number of people, the excuse works, because they might only be familiar with Rogan and not Miller, for example. 

This is a real shame, because there are real bigots out there in powerful positions who should be clearly distinguished from liberal talk-show hosts who are only guilty of criticizing people for getting so carried away with their ideals that they become tribal and intolerant. And that's exactly what the Rogan/Sanders smears are—tribalism. If the host of one of the biggest podcasts in the world wants to endorse the progressive candidate over the nationalist President, I for one am going to welcome that endorsement.  

As a journalist who has written about Donald Trump’s gaslighting tactics, which are well-documented by outlets like The Washington Post, and as a scientist who strives to be fair and objective, it would be hypocritical of me to not report on cases of gaslighting just because it is coming from media outlets I have written for, or with whom I am ideologically-aligned. We cannot just call out gaslighting when it is being used by people who don't share our political views. As journalists or bloggers, the day we stop being consistent is the day we can no longer be trusted.