Advancing a Political Agenda Through Attempted Gaslighting
Someone pretended to be a gaslight expert using the real expert’s credentials.
Posted Feb 22, 2021
When They Tried to Gaslight the Expert in Gaslighting
Over my career, I’ve helped many resist the "gaslight effect" and others’ efforts to control them by controlling their reality. I usually enjoy receiving “fan mail,” like this email I received sometime before our recent election:
“Dr. Stern, your gaslighting article was beautifully written.”
My correspondent pasted the article, which I understand has gone viral on social media, below his note. The only problem is that I didn’t write the article. Someone else wrote it, fraudulently using my name, credentials, and text from my book to advance a dangerous right-wing political agenda.
Even worse, the article takes the concept of gaslighting and turns it on its head, using clever manipulation to, in effect, gaslight the reader into thinking that any effort to introduce new or nuanced facts into a discussion is illegitimate and should be rejected.
Gaslighting continues to dominate the national narrative, both in the insurrection in the second impeachment trial and in the persistence of Q-Anon. Reliably sourced media reports about kids who are afraid they are losing their parents to a bogus right-wing narrative.
So, as an expert on gaslighting and psychological manipulation, I decided to use this experience to demonstrate what gaslighting is—and what it is not. As I was editing this article, with uncanny timing, I received an email from a concerned citizen, telling me that the fraudulent article was published in her local paper—the byline was under the name Robert Stern, but the authorship attributed to me, Robin Stern, Ph.D., with my Yale credentials.
The term “gaslighting” comes from a story that was first the play Angel Street, then adapted into the 1944 movie Gaslight, set in old England where gaslight lamps lit the homes. In it, a diabolical husband tries to make his adoring wife (played by Ingrid Bergman) believe that she is going crazy by manipulating her reality. He tells her she is forgetful and then steals things and moves objects until she believes she is. He humiliates her in front of others until she breaks down and acts like the fragile woman he tells her she is. And he tells her that her fraying sanity is making her perceive the lights as flickering when, in fact, he is manipulating the gaslight in the house, the act that ultimately leads to his capture.
The viral piece that is falsely attributed to me is correct that gaslighters often attempt to make their victims second-guess themselves by telling them their take on reality is wrong. It is incorrect and manipulative when it insists that readers should reject any facts that potentially challenge their beliefs as an attempt to gaslight them. In doing so, it dangerously recasts any efforts to educate someone or broaden their perspective as an attempt to control them.
Here is a flavor of what readers got when reading the purloined article:
“New York State has twice as many deaths from COVID-19 than any other state, and New York has accounted for one-fifth of all COVID-19 deaths, but we are told that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has handled the pandemic better than any other governor. But if we support policies of Governors whose states had only a fraction of the infections and deaths as New York, we’re called anti-science and want people to die. So, we ask ourselves, am I crazy? No, you’re being gaslighted.”
That is just one example.
In fact, the author of the fraudulent article employs several classic logical fallacies in his own attempt to control the reader. Let’s look at how "he" does it (I have no idea who the true author of the piece is, but most gaslighters I have encountered in my clinical practice are men):
He presents false dichotomies. For example, the author presents the problem of “inner cities” as being either “crime” or “police,” but not both. In his telling, if you care about crime, you must reject calls to reform the police (conveniently omitted is that crime rates have been falling for decades).
He does the same for the civil unrest sweeping our streets: If there is rioting, there can’t possibly be peaceful protests. In fact, both have occurred, with the vast majority of activities (roughly 93 percent) falling in the latter category. This kind of either-or thinking doesn’t allow for “and.” It asks readers to affirmatively ignore or reject facts rather than doing their own research to uncover messier truths.
He creates strawman arguments and uses false premises. Strawman arguments occur when someone mischaracterizes or oversimplifies another person’s point of view and then attacks that caricature; false premises are exactly that. In this case, the piece falsely published under my name claims, “We are told that Communism is the fairest, most equitable, most free, and most prosperous economic system in the world,” and “we are told that the United States is the most racist and oppressive country on the planet, and if we disagree, we are called racist and xenophobic.” I sincerely hope that anyone who reads this piece stopped to scratch their head here, or at least paused to register the lack of citations.
He uses ad hominem attacks to elicit sympathy and create red herrings. The author manipulates his audience, repeatedly making statements like if we think X, they call us racist/white supremacist/crazy. It makes the issue the propriety of personal attacks rather than the substance of his inflammatory claims.
He appeals to authority by cloaking himself in my expertise and, by extension, that of my home institution.
Gaslighting, at its core, is a relationship tactic employed to exert control over another person. In telling readers they should reject facts that contradict or complicate their reality as “gaslighting,” the article plays into contemporary political narratives of paranoia. It does not just give readers permission to refuse to seek the truth; it instructs them that to do otherwise would be to succumb to another’s influence.
Gaslighting is a real concern in public debates. We see it when politicians deny saying things that have been taped, when they deny actions others witnessed or words that were said by others, when they make up their own reality and insist it is based on facts, even though experts know it’s not.
No one wants to be controlled by another. The way to prevent that is to educate yourself, even at the risk of having to alter your opinions based on what you learn. Here are some questions to ask yourself when similar viral pieces pop into your inbox or your newsfeed:
- Does the author cite reliable sources?
- Does the author confuse opinions with facts?
- Does the author deploy logical fallacies like the ones described above?
- Does the author tell you not to educate yourself further, or demean the pursuit of more information?
- Is the author, in fact, the author?
Each of us is capable of using our critical faculties to resist psychological manipulation. In reading the article attempting to gaslight the public, this gaslighting expert was reminded once again how important that is. Our psychological and emotional well-being depends on it.