The Psychological Abuse of Propaganda

In 2020, reading the news has often felt stressful and intense. The events themselves are troubling, but there is an added layer of distress when the truth we observe is contradicted by official reports from authority figures. This is not imaginary– it’s a result of psychological manipulation used to advance political agendas. It also suggests, even more troublingly, attempts to assert control not only over peoples’ actions, but also over their thoughts and beliefs. 

DARVO is an acronym (Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender) describing a tactic perpetrators of wrongdoing employ when others attempt to hold them accountable for their behavior. It was first described in an interpersonal context, used by sexual offenders and violent intimate partners (Freyd, 1997; Harsey et al., 2017). Institutional DARVO, such as by police forces and universities, has also been described (Smith & Freyd, 2014). Basically, DARVO is a form of psychological abuse known as gaslighting, which is used to make victims question their own reality and thus capitulate. It is insidious and manipulative, relying on power differentials between victim and offender to control the dynamics. For high-profile examples, look at Donald Trump , Brett Kavanaugh, and Harvey Weinstein

Institutions and politicians also use such manipulative techniques. DARVO shaping the public’s understanding of police violence against protestors in Portland, for example. There is clearly documented evidence of police treating protesting citizens with everything from disrespect to violation of their rights to gross physical violence, and people involved and observing are sharing this evidence with one another via tools like twitter (examples here, here, and here; CW: these links include video that is violent and transphobic). Yet, the police chief and mayor continue to push a narrative that the blameless police are bravely protecting the city from agitators hell-bent on destruction. Such statements are picked up by everyone from national news outlets to the president and used to justify further violence. These storylines are coming from authority figures and they make great soundbites— but they are textbook psychological manipulation.
Here are some examples:

  • Deny: We have found no wrongdoing on the part of the police.
    • “They have served with professionalism, courage and resiliency through an extraordinary time.”  “We are a progressive agency.” (Lovell, 2020)
  • Attack: Protestors are violent anarchists who want to destroy the city.
    • Chief Chuck Lovell called the protestors “not only reprehensible, but they’re evil. ‘’ (Bernstein, 2020)
  • Reversal of victim and offender: Officers are bravely standing up to nightly assaults.
    • ” Many have been injured and some have received threats of violence to themselves or their families. They would prefer to return to regular patrol.” (Lovell, 2020)

As the above examples illustrate, public institutions like the Portland Police Bureau, and the individuals who serve them, are using psychological manipulation to undermine the public’s understanding of troubling events and power dynamics. People have been harmed by institutions that wield power over them, and then told that they are to blame.  This kind of institutional betrayal has been linked to long-term impacts including PTSD, loss of trust in institutions, persistent sense of powerlessness, and self-blame (McAuliffe, 2018).

These realities are grim. Awareness of DARVO behaviors, however, can mitigate some of the damage (Harsey et al., 2017). This knowledge can help victims to recognize and resist attempts to distort reality. In the case of police violence in the Portland protests (and many others), the distortion of reality is a deliberate means to a political end: preserve police power, create loyalty to particular politicians, and discredit people who hold opposing beliefs. In other words, institutional DARVO about police brutality is propaganda, and should be treated as such. Recognition of these attempts to distort truth is a key to effective resistance.

Stay woke, friends, and don’t believe everything that you read. Take care of yourselves and each other. The stakes are high.

Freyd 1997: Smith & Freyd 2014: Harsey et al. 2017: McAuliffe 2018: Lovell 2020: Bernstein 2020:

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