Internet Manipulation 101: Gaslighting

Once you become aware of the tricks people use to manipulate others, you see them everywhere. Marketing for sure. But also from individuals, sometimes even well-meaning individuals who are unaware they are being manipulative. I have written about this stuff before, such as my post on The Straw Man fallacy.

A couple days ago I posted on my facebook page about some of the ways people disrespect me, my audience, and the community I’ve created, by posting pseudoscience, fearmongering, or just plain emotionally manipulative content. A great conversation ensued.

Then, not 48 hours later, a person came to my public page to provide a real-time demonstration of what I was talking about (see pic below, name redacted). The topic was sugar ‘addiction’, but that’s not really what I want to focus on here, it’s the subtle manipulation, the diversion from the topic at hand. Putting someone on the defensive is a way of deflecting the conversation away from the topic and onto the person. When you feel like you need to defend yourself, you stop focusing on the topic, and the person using the manipulative tactic has effectively ‘won’, by shifting the conversation to something they can control.

Gaslighting (in internet interactions) is a form of emotional abuse and manipulation in which a person says something abusive, and then accuses the victim of abuse when they push back. I see it all over the place. “Wow, I was just stating my opinion, calm down!”, “You’re so aggressive!”, “What a bully!”, “I’ll be sure not to share my thoughts here again” – all emotional manipulation tactics.

When I push back in my facebook group, sometimes people who aren’t familiar with these tactics think I’m being unfair, that I’m ‘picking on’ the person I’m pushing back against. Because this form of manipulation can be very subtle and subversive, and the manipulation can be almost invisible, while the pushback is direct and upfront.

Learning to recognize manipulation is intensely empowering. But sometimes it can be painful to acknowledge that you’ve been manipulated – or that you’ve manipulated others. That pain can keep many people locked in the cycle of abuse and manipulation. Learning to recognize it, though, is a powerful step toward personal growth, and a skill that supports long-term mental (and ultimately physical) health. How? When you realize a person is using these manipulation tactics to control a conversation and deflect it from a substantive topic, you can be relatively sure they are doing it because they don’t have the facts and evidence necessary to back up their claims.

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