The term gaslighting was coined in the 1938 play, Gas Light, and its two film adaptations, which depict an abusive relationship in which a husband forces his wife to question her sanity by surreptitiously dimming and brightening the gaslights in their house to convince her that she is hallucinating (Rietdijk, 2021: 5). The term was later adopted by psychologists to describe an insidious form of interpersonal psychological manipulation in which the perpetrator undermines the victim’s perception of reality through deception and the obfuscation of truth (Sweet, 2019: 852-53). For Paige Sweet (2019) gaslighting is an inherently sociological phenomenon that is rooted in structural and institutional inequalities – these inequalities are leveraged by the abuser to perpetuate structural vulnerabilities related to gender, race, nationality, and sexuality by making the victim question their experiences of discrimination and abuse.
While Sweet focuses on the case study of heterosexual intimate relationships, Kate Abramson (2014: 5) offers an illustrative example of personal gaslighting in which the individual’s ‘reactions, perceptions, and memories’ are deemed as unfounded, thereby invalidating their account of their own experience:
I moved out of one field of philosophy in grad school due to an overwhelming accumulation of small incidents…When I tried to describe to fellow grad students why I felt ostracized or ignored because of my gender, they would ask for examples. I would provide examples, and they would proceed through each example to ‘demonstrate’ why I had actually misinterpreted or overreacted to what was actually going on.
Gaslighting can be used to describe any relationship predicated upon an unequal power dynamic and has expanded to include concepts of racial, cultural, legal, epistemic, and political gaslighting. Political gaslighting – the distortion of truth and reality for the consolidation and advancement of political power and agendas – serves as a ‘lens for the popular understanding of post-truth politics’ and describes a tactic of political manipulation (Shane et al., 2022: 178). Political gaslighting suggests the mobilisation of political epistemic authority – the liberal consensus of trust in the superior expertise and knowledge of democratically-elected political actors – to disseminate disinformation that distorts and discredits available evidence thereby undermining the public’s ability to distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources of information (Beerbohm and Davis, 2021).
Rietdijk (2021) identifies three interdependent strategies of political gaslighting – the introduction of counternarratives, the discrediting of critics, and the denial of obvious facts – which exploit structural and institutional inequalities to ‘destabilise and disorient public opinion on political issues’ (Latif, 2016: 39). Therefore, political gaslighting constitutes a threat to democratic politics because it produces a ‘pernicious dynamic’ which erodes the ‘epistemic autonomy’ – the ability to rely on epistemic authority to guide self-governance – of the public by manipulating their perception of reality through disinformation, undermining their ability to make informed decisions (Rietdijk, 2021: 1).
For Jason Hannan (2022), the disinformation of the COVID-19 pandemic and Western health policy is the epitome of political gaslighting. After two years of restrictions, the pandemic infrastructure was dismantled and the public encouraged to ‘learn to live with COVID’ as a new reality of endemicity was constructed (Monbiot, 2022). However, this reality directly contradicts the evidence presented by medical professionals and epidemiologists that even mild cases of COVID-19 increase risk of serious health complications. Moreover, it denies the reality witnessed in hospital wards, the collapse of the hospital system in the UK April 2022, and in global case and death numbers. By discrediting the evidence and advice of professionals, denying the severity of the disease, and mobilising their epistemic authority to introduce the counternarrative that COVD-19 has come to an end, Western politicians have distorted the collective perception of reality and engaged in a pervasive tactic of political gaslighting.
— Erin Jenkins
Abramson, K. (2014) ‘Turning up the Lights on Gaslighting’, in Philosophical Perspectives, 28, 1-30. DOI: https://www.jstor.org/stable/26614542
Beerbohm, E. & Davis, R.W. (2021) ‘Gaslighting Citizens’, in American Journal of Political Science, 1-13. DOI: 10.1111/ajps.126781
Hannan, J. (2022) ‘Why COVID-19 gaslighting by politicians is so dangerous for democracy’, Accessed: 21/06/2023. Available at: https://theconversation.com/why-covid-19-gaslighting-by-politicians-is-so-dangerous-for-democracy-181103
Latif, F. (2020) ‘Political Gaslighting in the Climate Change Discourse Surrounding the 2016 Election’, in Browning, R.X. (ed.) President Trump’s First Term: The Year in C-SPAN Archives Research, 5, 39-66. DOI: https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvh9w11h.8
Monibot, G. (2019) ‘’Learning to live with it’? From Covid to climate breakdown, it’s the new way of failing’, Accessed: 21/06/2023. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/apr/07/learning-live-covid-climate-breakdown-failing-government-flooding
Rietdijk, N. (2020) ‘Post-truth Politics and Collective Gaslighting’, in Episteme, 1-17. DOI: 10.1017/epi.2021.24.
Shane, T., Willaert, T. & Tuters, M. (2022) ‘The rise of “gaslighting”: debates about disinformation on Twitter and 4chan, and the possibility of a “good echo chamber”’, in Political Communication, 20:3, 178-192. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/15405702.2022.2044042
Sweet, P.L. (2019) ‘The Sociology of Gaslighting’, in American Sociology Review, 84:5, 851-875. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0003122419874843
Davis, A.M. and Ernst, R. (2017) ‘Racial gaslighting’, in Politics, Groups, and Identities, 7:4, 761-774. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/21565503.2017.1403934
McKinnon, R. (2017) ‘Allies Behaving Badly: Gaslighting as epistemic injustice’, in Kidd, I.J., Medina, J. & Pohlhaus Jr., G. (eds.) The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice, London: Routledge.
Podosky, C.P. (2020) ‘Gaslighting, First-and Second-Order’, in Hypatia, 36:1, 207-227. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/hyp.2020.54
Ruiz, E. (2020) ‘Cultural Gaslighting’, in Hypatia, 35:4, 687-713. DOI: 10.1017/hyp.2020.33