Is It a"Gaslighting Effect" or Just a Lack of Knowledge?

About the Author: Veronika Haluch is a Master Student from Free University of Berlin. She has spent one semester in Tbilisi and attended the classes of "Information Warfare and Security" at Tbilisi State University. During the classes students have analysed the movie "Gaslighting" (1944) and the "Gaslighting effect" from a media psychology perspective. These discussions inspired Veronika to see disinformation in a different perspective.

Trust, Intention, and Immunity against facts

In times when information is treated as something which’s value and meaning must first be categorised, verified, and validated, it has become increasingly difficult for those who have not been trained in processing information to filter and form opinions from facts. But even those who are supposedly trained in the assessment of information are increasingly faced with the challenge of having to classify information as right or wrong, distinguish between facts and fiction.

Let me give you an example: a colleague shares with the fact they recently detected that X is in fact Y and adds to that, that they gained this info from a trusted source. But your knowledge (X is X and Y is Y) has also come from a by you trusted source. You both insist on the trustworthiness of the sources and truth of the facts. Of course, by investing time in research you or they can conclude if X really is Y – but the other can always generate sources from his fund that prove the opposite.

In the era of misinformation and political debates mainly taking place online, sources that reinforce one’s argument can be traced easily and by that, everyone can claim their opinion as the sole truth. Needless to say, this discussion about facts and the verifiability of sources is particularly relevant at a time when only certain trained people have the competence to provide an expert assessment. Actually, it should also be clear that when it comes to qualified assessments, only these evaluations count. Reasons for that are manifold, but a hardening of populist tendencies worldwide and the relevance of identity discourses seem to have encouraged a different behaviour, as everyone rests on their own truth.

On one site, the need for facts and truth has increased since the demand for qualified evaluations of global developments has risen. A need for security and accessibility of the global situation is to be satisfied, prospects of a bleak future and associated fears are to be taken away. Calling out someone and delegitimizing their sources and facts is an easy task and one does not have to break out of the safe haven of their own truth. Investing time to find proof or the opposite for the stated, is not, or at least the resources people have done not get wasted on that. One of the central venues for the battles fought over true and false, me and them is digital media; especially social media platforms, blogs, and comment sections. Ironically, information on what to consider as a fact and what to consider as a fiction and how to debunk non-facts is also mostly accessible online.

In my opinion, it is not only about the bias of truth and mendacity. Often, the intention of the statement lets the information become misinformation, facts become falsehood, and falsehood becomes disinformation when it is intentionally disseminating false and manipulated content in order to achieve a specific goal.

"Gaslighting effect" and media

These wars over the value of information and the confidentiality of sources are all in one way or another deploying techniques of so-called Gaslighting. This term had been brought up to discussion beyond the realm of psychology and describes a behaviour that offers explanations that depict the victim as unstable and mentally distorted, their reality not corresponding the real world, so that the abuser can control the victim’s perception of reality while maintaining a position of authority (Roberts, T., & Andrews, 2013.)

Thus, it is important to find comprehension over how easy also media discourse can be manipulated when Gaslighting mechanism work. It does not necessarily have to be planned distortion of the other's perception, it can also be a constant flooding of alternative knowledge and facts which make the person concerned question his own knowledge more and more. Authority has not to be necessarily acted upon this stage. That is why these mechanism can work more effectively, authority than comes into game when there is potential for questioning the stated.

It should now be clear that I am targeting this to the current debate about vaccinations, the SARS COV2 Virus and all these things, people are relating to that – politically and socially. As soon as the debate around the virus and its potential left the professional safe space, the gaslights started flickering.

Two years into the pandemic they still flicker. More than that, they turned into flares guiding those who think that the truth is hidden deep beneath the layers of political and scientific culture. These layers have to be removed piece by piece, thus pulling the rug out from under the feet of those who believe in the established system.

Last and the most important I want to mention is, that there is a way of breaking out the damaging atmosphere gaslighting actions creates. As soon it is understood where and how manipulations via gaslighting strategies are acting, these tactics can be learned and beaten with their own means. As gaslighting is a prevalent issue, not only media and media-related institutions should be eager in tackling the deconstruction of gaslighting systems and behaviour, but also civil society. Though, they need to be careful in not reproducing content that is rooting from these structures but deconstruct it.


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