Political Gaslighting- Meaning and Concerns

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The term ‘gaslighting’ has been named Merriam-Webster’s word of the year 2022. The term has been gaining currency in the recent times- initially to describe deceptions in inter-personal levels. However, in this post-truth era, such deceptions are occurring at enormous proportions, affecting issues at the national and international levels.

What is political gaslighting?

  • Gaslighting refers to the act of manipulating people into questioning their own sense of reality.
  • In this era, characterized by fast-spreading fake news and personally-tailored ‘facts’, gaslighting has emerged as a political strategy.
  • For example:
    • Leaders, upon losing elections, claim that it was rigged.
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How is this done?

  • Political gaslighting often involves deceptive use of information to destabilize and disorient the general public’s opinion on key political issues. This is done to garner support for/ against a viewpoint, ideology or a policy.
  • This leads to creation of false narratives with no basis in reality.
  • This is done with the help of 2 things that feed off inequality i.e. words and power.
  • There are 2 types of political gaslighting:
    • Overt political gaslighting, in which the gaslighter openly peddles false information. Examples include leaders dismissing events like the Babri Masjid demolition as something that didn’t happen.
    • Covert political gaslighting, in which the speakers resorts to ambiguous statements that can’t be demonstrably proven/ disproven. Examples include emotional manipulation, shedding crocodile tears about some violent protests, etc.

Victims:

  • The gaslighter calls those who question these alternative narratives, as irrational or of unsound mind.
  • There are 2 types of victims to this political manoeuvring:
    • The gaslit people i.e. those successfully manipulated by the gaslighter
    • Critics, such as journalists and researchers, who often end up being silenced by the gaslighter.

Examples:

  • Some of the earliest examples of carefully planned and controlled instance of political gaslighting were seen in Germany, during the Nazi era. For eg, fake letters and other ploys were used to implicate dissidents.
  • Over time, the strategy has been used to stoke communal tensions and even rewrite history.
  • Political gaslighting increased alarmingly during the pandemic, with some leaders labelling COVID-19 as a ‘conspiracy’ and attempting to downplay the situation’s severity. In other cases, political figures resorted to fielding divisive issues to divert attention from the health crisis and declaring premature victory over the virus to gain political currency.
  • Some political gaslighting may not be called by this term. For instance, encouraging deliberate fake news, downplaying a government’s wrongdoing, discrediting one’s political rivals, diverting attention from the real issues, etc. come under this category.

Why is it a concern?

  • Political gaslightings’ damaging influences became very visible during the pandemic. For instance, underplaying the virus’ danger led to people defying COVID-appropriate norms, leading to spike in cases and deaths.
  • In addition to this, such strategies undermine the public’s capacity to consider a policy in an objective manner and understand its long and short-term implications.
  • Eventually, it leads to a sense of distrust among the general public.
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What is the way ahead?

  • Political gaslighting is a real pollutant of public debate and is emerging as a significant threat to countries’ progress. It has even been resulting in societal rifts and violence.
  • The rule of thumb to identify and safeguard the audience from political gaslighting is to encourage critical thinking. This would be aided by fact checking and better education.
  • While truth is being named as the solution to political gaslighting, what is really needed is a democracy that doubts both- truth and post-truth. Encouraging a ‘monitory’ democracy i.e. one promoting the growth of public spaces that interrogate and reign in state excesses is key.

Conclusion:

Political gaslighting is quickly becoming a defining feature of the current times. Like the ancient thinkers said, world is a veil of lies that need to be pushed aside to discern the truth. However, truth itself can be ill-defined and amorphous, allowing for easy manipulation for mundane ends.

Practice Question for Mains:

Political gaslighting is quickly becoming a defining feature of the current times. Comment. (250 words)

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