Chaos, Confusion and a Severe disconnect from reality. These are just some of the side effects of gaslighting, a technique used in offensive information warfare.
Drawn from George Cukor’s award-winning film Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, the term gaslighting is here defined as a weapon of the will to power. It is known in the cybersecurity community as a technique used by social engineers to psychologically manipulate their targets. While the cybersecurity context implies gaining access to systems or sensitive information, gaslighting is quite useful in the context of information warfare. Nation-states and other actors can use gaslighting to sow chaos and dissent among their adversaries, such as with Russia’s current disinformation campaigns against many of the world’s democracies.
Gaslighting forces targets to question their reality. Gaslighting is a preferred tactic of narcissistic and aggressive personalities, bent on doing whatever it takes to gain and maintain advantage over others. Their point is to disorient and destabilize their targets. Attackers want to harness people’s self-doubts; ruin their capacity for seeing the world ironically; destroy their ability to make sound judgments, and ultimately drive them into submission. This occurs through several techniques:
- Lying is a key starting point of a gaslighting attack. The attacker first introduces disinformation and other falsehoods into the target’s life to trigger an emotional response. Sensational-looking but fake news articles are a perfect example. This lays the foundation for further confusing the target and damaging their perception of their own rationality. In response, the target begins to think less and less logically, in part because they grow distrustful of their own thoughts, and in part because they are flooded with contradictory and confusing stimuli. It is an incredibly twisted and manipulative process, which is perhaps why gaslighting is sometimes performed by psychopaths in addition to social engineers, nation-states, and political extremists.
- Misdirection involves changing the subject of conversation when a target questions their newfound “reality.” For example, an attacker might present a pool of targets with misinformation. When the targets question what’s been presented to them, the attacker misdirects their inquiries and instead challenges their gut instinct. The attacker might point to previous instances where the target’s instincts were wrong, or they may even point out biases that cause us to misread what’s in front of us. This allows the attacker to further confuse the target while still drawing attention away from the original, grounding questions.
- Persistent denial increases a target’s confusion. By selecting truthful pieces of information from both the target’s personal life and their broader environment, an attacker can then repeatedly and forcefully deny them. For instance, news stories alleging “deep state” conspiracy theories (e.g., “the Sandy Hook massacre was a staged event”) cause such disruption – although the denial of reality does not have to be quite as blatant or emotional. Once the idea is introduced, attackers can persistently deny any evidence to the contrary.
These techniques all tie in with one another and are useful in a variety of contexts. Political extremists – and politicians – from the United States to Europe to Russia have used gaslighting to spread disinformation and conspiracy theories among voters in their own parties and other countries.
As Frida Ghitis writes, Russia's false reality, initially used in the domestic arena, is now used in the global theater. When "little green men" made their appearance in Ukraine's Crimea, Russia denied that there were Russian operatives in unmarked uniforms. And when pro-Russian militias emerged in Ukraine and elsewhere, Moscow claimed they emerged spontaneously in a quest for independence, even as Russian military forces mobilized in a sovereign country. Gaslighting can be seen in Russia’s disinformation campaigns against Western democracies and their public handling of scandals as well.
U.S. President Trump’s rhetoric is a similar example of gaslighting. Lying, misdirection, and persistent denial are all tactics used to disrupt senses of reality and to distract from other issues at hand. In the end, few people can keep up with everything – a situation only exacerbated by the presence of serious policy issues and the undercutting of journalist credibility. Specific examples can be found in The Washington Post, New York Times Magazine, and a variety of other news outlets. While the initial effects (e.g., during the 2016 presidential election) were largely domestic, their effects are now spreading into the international arena.
The term “gaslighting” may be relatively new (at least in the context of global history), but its principles are certainly not. We can identify these tactics in many previous military conflicts, contentious elections, and heated public discussions far before the release of Cukor’s film. For instance, the ancient Greeks called such individuals Sophists. Plato criticized them for wanting money for teaching. Aristophanes called them “hair-splitting wordsmiths.” These views led to the modern definition of sophistry as using argument to deceive. Hence, a sophism is a specious argument for displaying ingenuity in reasoning or for deceiving someone, while a sophist is a person who reasons with clever but fallacious and deceptive arguments.
Further, politics as the art of evasion, befuddlement, and engineered public silence is not new. Lying in politics is an ancient art. Think of Plato’s noble lie or Machiavelli’s recommendation that a successful prince must be “a great pretender and dissembler.” Some things do not change. Still, several things are unusual about the gaslighting trends of our time. Each is bound up with the unfinished communications revolution. The digital merging and melding of text, sound, and image; the advent of cheap media modification tools; and the growing ease of networked information-spreading across vast distances are powerful drivers of post-truth decadence. Information can spread to global audiences in real time at very low costs.
As social media and other communication platforms continue to permeate our day-to-day lives, problems of misinformation and disinformation will grow in scale – and gaslighting will only enhance the resulting confusion. Nation-states will be able to sow chaos and distrust in other countries. Malicious actors will be able to disrupt discourse and undermine confidence in the free press. Gaslighting, in short, will make it more difficult for individuals to identify the truth. Countering, combatting, and outsmarting these narratives is no easy task, but it is essential that we identify and discuss these signs of gaslighting.
Because in addition to designing technical solutions, we must also develop social ones; we cannot forget to educate, empower, and protect the human. After all, it is us individuals who will be identifying the truth.
Justin Sherman is studying Computer Science and Political Science at Duke University, focused on cybersecurity, warfare, and governance. Justin is a Cyber Policy Researcher at a Department of Defense-backed, industry-intelligence-academia group at North Carolina State University focused on cyber and national security.
Anastasios Arampatzis is a retired Hellenic Air Force officer with over 20 years worth of experience in managing IT projects and evaluating cybersecurity. Anastasios’ interests include exploring the human side of cybersecurity, public education, organizational training programs, and the effect of biases in applying cybersecurity policies and integrating technology into learning. Currently, he works as an informatics instructor at AKMI Educational Institute.