Extinguish the gaslight: Be a smart information consumer

Donald Trump is in a bit of a pickle. He’s running for reelection. Unlike in 2016, he is no longer the new face in Washington. He’s now forced to run on the basis of his performance. Among many obstacles for him to overcome is that more than 180,000 people have died so far because of his many failures.

One of those failures is Trump’s inability to admit he did something wrong and then change course. If he decides that the virus will go away like a miracle and it doesn’t, he just postpones the miracle’s arrival date and repeats the lie. If he decides that a malaria drug is a cure and it isn’t, he’ll disparage anyone who disputes what he says, even peer-reviewed scientific studies or his own spokesperson. This character flaw is one of the main reasons that the Trump Administration’s COVID-19 response has been such a fiasco.

At the same time, the economy has fallen off of a cliff. For a guy whose brand has been about money and success, the truth of Donald Trump is now out there for all of us to see. He bankrupted his companies and now he's bankrupting us. Whatever success he’s had is because of salesmanship, not sustainability. (Those who did their homework before 2016 knew that the Trump brand was a con, even then.)

So Donald Trump now has a track record as President, and it’s awful. Now there’s no chance he can make campaign ads adorned with smiling constituents and shiny jobs numbers. Even his ardent supporters always seem to be growling about something. He needs something else to talk about until November. And like many of us, he can’t seem to find anything serious not to like about Joe Biden.

The one thing that seems to work well for Trump is lying. It might be that his lies work best because they are relentless and unceasing, so one lie can’t be debunked in time for the next lie to come tumbling down. It might be that his lies work because he never, ever admits that he lied. He’s probably still telling anyone who will listen about his record-breaking inauguration crowds.

Little lies like crowd size are relatively benign, but things are getting dangerous. Let’s talk about gaslighting.

The term gaslighting came into being because of a 1938 British play (that was eventually adapted to movies). An abusive husband manipulates his wife by changing their environment (such as dimming and raising the gas lights) and insisting that she should not believe what she sees with her own eyes. Turns out, gaslighting is used by sociopaths and narcissists for their own gain. And this technique was honed in Soviet Russia as dezinformatsiya, from the English word disinformation.

“Russian disinformation teams used social media to recruit Americans across the political spectrum to help push their themes online and also to participate in real-world political rallies and other events, Mueller found.”

That’s the analysis by the Washington Post to describe the Russian interference in the 2016 election as uncovered in the Mueller investigation. Maybe you were targeted in that election. Maybe your vote in the 2016 primary or general election was influenced by something in your social media news feed. Maybe you don’t think you saw anything odd. The Russians are good at this.

Fool me once, shame on you, as they say. But we’re all being tested again. The gasbag-in-chief is trying to gaslight us all.

“Absentee ballots are good. Mail-in ballots are bad.” There's no difference between mail-in and absentee ballots.

“We should delay the election.” We can’t, by law, and we shouldn’t, because there's no need to do so.

“The Postal Service can’t handle so many ballots.” Yes it can, and that’s why they have always been able to deliver all of our Christmas cards and packages, mailpieces that aren’t even limited to one per voter the way ballots are. Yes, one per voter. If you manage to vote twice, your second ballot is thrown out, and someone might come knocking at your door.

“I might not accept the results.” Sorry, Mr. Trump, but nobody will ask you to certify the outcome. If you lose, you leave. Those Secret Service guys that now surround you work for us, not you. In the moment that spans a Joe Biden inauguration, you go from the guy they’ll take a bullet for to the guy who threatens the guy they’ll take a bullet for. Don’t test them. They’re armed.

Some of us are disenchanted with the state of our news choices. This is the first time in human history that we each curate our very own news sources. Those providers are motivated by business metrics, and truth is desirable, but malleable. We ourselves aren’t blameless. We listen to the politicians who tell us what we want to hear, and we can’t stand the grating voices of those who present us with opposing views of varying veracity.

We pick our favorite cable channel; we follow sources on Facebook or Twitter; we join groups on Reddit or 4Chan. There are credible posts and less credible propaganda on all of these platforms and yes, the Biden War Room posts on most of them. And beyond our individual constructions of news sources, our subscribed channels and the platforms themselves curate the facts we see.

When you watch television, you can usually tell when you’re watching a commercial or a product placement that’s paying for your show. To avoid the commercials, you can stream for a monthly fee. In contrast, when you’re using free social media, the reason you don’t pay is that you’re the product. Every click, every article you open, every exit to a website, all of that is sent to someone who thinks that this knowledge about you is useful. Most of the time, that only results in ads that match your needs. No harm done.

Used against us, these sales techniques are called “active measures”. They trigger emotional responses in us rather than cool rationality.  If we don’t know how to distinguish between reporting and spin, we’re gaslighting ourselves.

In the end, we might get frustrated and conclude that we can’t trust anyone to tell the truth. We might think that this makes us analytical and discerning. It doesn’t. It makes us into trophies for the professional gaslighters.

Here’s the trick to disinformation and gaslighting. Those who trade in disinformation aren’t trying to persuade you to join their side. They just want you not to trust anyone. “Never trust the mainstream media”, says the news channel that claims to have the largest audience in the news media.

Ronald Reagan translated a rhyming Russian proverb as “trust, but verify.” At the time, he was describing our vigilance in overseeing a nuclear nonproliferation treaty we had with Russia (Donald Trump withdrew us from this treaty in 2019).

But this advice should apply to ourselves, too. Don’t fall for lies, not theirs, and not your own. Vet your sources of information. Evaluate carefully the line between journalism and opinion. Everyone but you benefits if you’re oblivious to being manipulated.

It’s time to assume that everything Donald Trump says is for his own benefit, not ours, and there are already hundreds of thousands of examples to mourn. But in the face of a potential loss, Trump and his surrogates will say anything that might keep you from voting for Joe Biden. Trump doesn’t need your vote; he just needs you to give up. Just like last time. Don’t fall for it. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.