Gaslighting is a method of psychological manipulation based on undermining the target’s sense of reality, making them doubt their own perceptions, beliefs and/or memories. The purpose is to gain greater control of the target, discredit them or motivate them to do things they would be less likely to do of their own volition. Gaslighting may be one person trying to influence another; online, it is more often an attempt to manipulate a broader audience.
Gaslighting can be seen as a type of cognitive hacking. The practice is common on social media sites and is sometimes conducted as part of an organized campaign. The perpetrator may disseminate disinformation and weaponized information as themselves or may create a fake identity sometimes called a sock puppet to remain anonymous or avoid accountability.
According to Stephanie Sarkis (author of Gaslighting: How to recognize manipulative and abusive people – and break free), gaslighting is a common practice among dictators, narcissists, abusers and cult leaders, who gain power over targets by destabilizing people’s mental states and making them doubt their own perceptions of reality.
Writing in Psychology Today, Dr. Sarkis explains gaslighting tactics. Blatant lies, for example, can put the target off balance by making them unsure of whether or not to believe anything further the liar says. That effect can generalize, so that the target is not sure whose word can be trusted. A gaslighter may also flatly deny that they said or did something, despite the fact that there may be documented proof. People using these manipulative tactics often appeal to the target’s vulnerable areas, such as fear of change or a need to feel secure or protect loved ones.
The term gaslight comes from a 1944 movie of that name in which a man uses various manipulative tactics to make his wife doubt her own sanity so he can gain power of attorney and have her institutionalized.