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Whataboutism, A Russian Propaganda Technique, Popular With Trump, His Supporters
In the last year, there’s been a lot of shifting of blame. In Latin, it’s known as tu quoque, meaning “you also.” However, it’s become more commonly known as whataboutism, and we’ve been hearing it used more often in press conferences and Sunday morning talk shows.
It also figured prominently in Lesley Stahl’s most recent interview on "60 Minutes" with Margarita Simonyon, head of the Russian television network RT.
“Let’s talk about Russian Interference in our election which our intelligence agencies tell us happened. You believe them like you believed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Didn’t you believe that?" Stahl said.
Whataboutism is a Russian propaganda technique and was used frequently during the Cold War. Whenever criticism was leveled at the Soviet Union, they countered with a similar critique of the West. It’s a favorite diversionary tactic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. This style of argumentation has also become popular with President Donald Trump, his supporters and surrogates.
And, according to Wall Street Journal language columnist Ben Zimmer, “I think that there’s cause for concern when we see whataboutism being deployed so frequently these days because it is a way of deflecting away from genuine criticisms about political leaders. Not just Donald Trump."
Aaron Kall is the director of debate at the University of Michigan. We asked him if whataboutism is an effective debating technique.
“It can be. You always want to win if you’re debating and same thing with politics you want to win elections so if by deflecting and diverting the question to something else and that receives the attention and throws your opponent of then yes it can be successful and people wouldn’t deploy this argument if it doesn’t work," Kall said.
As a debate director Kall says whataboutisms do have their place in a conversation.
“They’re fine to be used but I just wouldn’t solely rely on them. I think it should be part of your performance debate. But, if you’re just making whataboutisms that’s gonna be a losing strategy but it can certainly be part of an arsenal when debating an important issue," Kall said.
Zimmer says this style of muddying the waters is especially hard for journalists trying to report on things people in power don’t want to talk about.
“I think it’s something we have to be on guard about and journalists by recognizing this whataboutism ploy can hold people in power accountable for their actions rather than letting them riggle away by using this rhetorical tactic," Zimmer said.
As 2018 is an election year and global leaders deal with the actions and rhetoric around military conflicts, hate groups and humanitarian crises, the technique is unlikely to go away and will require critical analysis by consumers.