Whataboutism (also known as whataboutery) is a variant of the tu quoque logical fallacy that attempts to discredit an opponent's position by charging them with hypocrisy without directly refuting or disproving their argument, which is particularly associated with Soviet and Russian propaganda. When criticisms were leveled at the Soviet Union, the Soviet response would be "What about..." followed by an event in the Western world.
|Type||Tu quoque (appeal to hypocrisy)|
|Active period||Cold War–present|
The term "whataboutery" has been used in Britain and Ireland since the period of the Troubles (conflict) in Northern Ireland. Lexicographers date the first appearance of the variant whataboutism to the 1990s, while other historians state that during the Cold War Western officials referred to the Soviet propaganda strategy by that term. The tactic saw a resurgence in post-Soviet Russia, relating to human rights violations committed by, and criticisms of, the Russian government. The technique received new attention during Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea and military intervention in Ukraine. Usage of the tactic extended to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov.
The Guardian deemed whataboutism, as used in Russia, "practically a national ideology". Journalist Julia Ioffe wrote that "Anyone who has ever studied the Soviet Union" was aware of the technique, citing the Soviet rejoinder to criticism, And you are lynching Negroes, as a "classic" example of the tactic. Writing for Bloomberg News, Leonid Bershidsky called whataboutism a "Russian tradition", while The New Yorker described the technique as "a strategy of false moral equivalences". Jill Dougherty called whataboutism a "sacred Russian tactic", and compared it to the pot calling the kettle black.
Etymology and history of the termEdit
The Oxford Dictionary of English 2010 edition, and Oxford Living Dictionaries entry on whataboutism states: "Origin - 1990s: from the way in which counter-accusations may take the form of questions introduced by 'What about —?'." According to the lexicographer Ben Zimmer, the term whataboutism appeared "as early as 1993". In contrast, Andreas Umland, a political scientist and historian of Russia and Ukraine, said the term was used during the Soviet Union period, writing: "what was known during Soviet times, as 'whataboutism'". Neil Buckley wrote for Financial Times, "Soviet-watchers called it 'whataboutism'. This was the Communist-era tactic of deflecting foreign criticism of, say, human rights abuses, by pointing, often disingenuously, at something allegedly similar in the critic’s own country: 'Ah, but what about…?'"
According to Oxford Dictionary of English, in British English whataboutism is synonymous with whataboutery, which according to Zimmer has been used with a similar meaning since the period of The Troubles conflict in Northern Ireland. In 1974, a letter published in the Irish Times referred to "the Whatabouts [...] who answer every condemnation of the Provisional I.R.A. with an argument to prove the greater immorality of the 'enemy'" and an opinion column in the same paper picked up the theme using the term "whataboutery", which gained wide currency in commentary about the conflict. Zimmer noted that the variant whataboutism was used in the same context in a 1993 book by Tony Parker.
British journalist Edward Lucas used the word whataboutism in a blog post of October 29, 2007, reporting as part of a diary about Russia which was printed in the November 2 issue of The Economist. "Whataboutism" was the title of an article in The Economist on January 31, 2008, where Lucas wrote: "Soviet propagandists during the cold war were trained in a tactic that their western interlocutors nicknamed 'whataboutism'". Zimmer credited Lucas for popularizing the term in 2007–2008.
Use by Soviet and Russian leadersEdit
When criticisms were leveled at the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the response would be "What about..." followed by the naming of an event in the West. It represents a case of tu quoque — an appeal to hypocrisy. The tactic is a type of logical fallacy that attempts to discredit the opponent's position by accusing hypocrisy. It functions as a diversionary tactic to distract the opponent from their original criticism. Thus, the technique is used to avoid directly refuting or disproving the opponent's initial argument. The tactic is an attempt at moral relativism, and a form of false moral equivalence.
The Economist recommended two methods of properly countering whataboutism: to "use points made by Russian leaders themselves" so that they cannot be applied to the West, and for Western nations to engage in more self-criticism of their own media and government. Euromaidan Press discussed the strategy in a feature on whataboutism, the second in a three-part educational series on Russian propaganda. The series described whataboutism as an intentional distraction away from serious criticism of Russia. The piece advised subjects of whataboutism to resist emotional manipulation and the temptation to respond.
Soviet Union periodEdit
During the Cold War, Western officials responding to Soviet propaganda's usage of the tactic referred to it as "whataboutism." Due to its frequent use by Soviet officials, the term emerged during the Soviet era. The technique became increasingly prevalent in Soviet public relations, until it became a habitual practice by the government. Soviet media employing whataboutism, hoping to tarnish the reputation of the US, did so at the expense of journalistic neutrality. According to the Ottawa Citizen, Soviet officials made increased use of the tactic during the latter portion of the 1940s, aiming to distract attention from criticism of the Soviet Union.
One of the earliest uses of the technique was in 1947, after William Averell Harriman criticized "Soviet imperialism" in a speech. Ilya Ehrenburg's response in Pravda criticized the United States' laws and policies on race and minorities, writing that the Soviet Union deemed them "insulting to human dignity" but did not use them as a pretext for war. Whataboutism saw greater usage in Soviet public relations during the Cold War.
Throughout the Cold War, the tactic was primarily utilized by media figures speaking on behalf of the Soviet Union. By accusing critics of hypocrisy, the Soviet Union hoped to deflect attention away from the original criticism itself. The term whataboutism was known locally the Soviet Union as a way to draw attention from criticism of Moscow. As the tactic became ubiquitous in the Soviet Union, whataboutism became known as a Soviet cliché. At the end of the Cold War, alongside US civil rights reforms, the tactic began dying out.
The tactic was used in post-Soviet Russia in relation to human rights violations committed by, and other criticisms of, the Russian government. Whataboutism became a favorite tactic of the Kremlin. Russian public relations strategies combined whataboutism with other Soviet tactics, including disinformation and active measures. Whataboutism is used as Russian propaganda with the goal of obfuscating criticism of the Russian state, and to degrade the level of discourse from rational criticism of Russia to petty bickering. Russian leaders adopted the Soviet-era practice of whataboutism, choosing to avoid internal reflection of external criticism in favor of emphasizing other states' wrongdoings. In addition to whataboutism, Russian leaders asserted that their actions had been the result of Western provocation, and attempted to distort the veracity of media coverage.
Although the use of whataboutism was not restricted to any particular race or belief system, according to The Economist, Russians often overused the tactic. The Russian government's use of whataboutism grew under the leadership of Vladimir Putin. Jake Sullivan of Foreign Policy, wrote Putin "is an especially skillful practitioner" of the technique. Business Insider echoed this assessment, writing that "Putin's near-default response to criticism of how he runs Russia is whataboutism". Edward Lucas of The Economist observed the tactic in modern Russian politics, and cited it as evidence of the Russian leadership's return to a Soviet-era mentality.
In July 2012, RIA Novosti columnist Konstantin von Eggert wrote an article about the use of whataboutism in relation to Russian and American support for different states in the Middle East. Writer Miriam Elder commented in The Guardian that Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, used the tactic; she added that most criticisms of human rights violations had gone unanswered. Peskov responded to Elder's article on the difficulty of dry-cleaning in Moscow by mentioning Russians' difficulty obtaining a visa to the United Kingdom. Peskov used the whataboutism tactic the same year in a letter written to the Financial Times.
Increased use after Russian annexation of CrimeaEdit
The tactic received new attention during Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea and military intervention in Ukraine. The Russian officials and media frequently used "what about" and then provided Kosovo independence or Scotland referendum as an example to justify Crimean annexation or Donbass military conflict. Neil Buckley wrote for the Financial Times, "As several former Soviet republics drift back towards authoritarian ways, whataboutism is making a comeback." Jill Dougherty noted in 2014 that the tactic is a "a time-worn propaganda technique used by the Soviet government" which sees further use in Russian propaganda, including Russia Today. The assessment that Russia Today engages in whataboutism was echoed by the Financial Times and Bloomberg News. The tactic was also employed by Azerbaijan, which responded to criticism of its human rights record by holding parliamentary hearings on issues in the United States. Simultaneously, pro-Azerbaijan Internet trolls used whataboutism to draw attention away from criticism of the country. Similarly, Turkey engaged in whataboutism by publishing an official document listing criticisms of other governments that had criticized Turkey. The Washington Post observed in 2016 that media outlets of Russia had become "famous" for their use of whataboutism. Use of the technique had a negative impact on Russia–United States relations during US President Barack Obama's second term. The Wall Street Journal noted that Putin himself used the tactic in a 2017 interview with NBC News journalist Megyn Kelly.
Use by Donald TrumpEdit
Critics say that US President Donald Trump has engaged in whataboutism in response to criticism leveled at him, his policies, or his support of controversial world leaders. National Public Radio (NPR) reported, "President Trump has developed a consistent tactic when he's criticized: say that someone else is worse." NPR noted Trump chose to criticize the Affordable Care Act when he himself faced criticism over the proposed American Health Care Act of 2017, "Instead of giving a reasoned defense, he went for blunt offense, which is a hallmark of whataboutism." NPR noted similarities in use of the tactic by Putin and Trump, "it's no less striking that while Putin's Russia is causing the Trump administration so much trouble, Trump nevertheless often sounds an awful lot like Putin."
When criticized or asked to defend his behavior, Trump has frequently changed the subject by criticizing Hillary Clinton, the Obama Administration, and the Affordable Care Act. When asked about Russian human rights violations, Trump has shifted focus to the US itself, employing whataboutism tactics similar to those used by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
After Fox News host Bill O'Reilly and MSNBC host Joe Scarborough called Putin a killer, Trump responded by saying that the US government was also guilty of killing people. Garry Kasparov commented to Columbia Journalism Review on Trump's use of whataboutism: "Moral relativism, 'whataboutism,' has always been a favorite weapon of illiberal regimes. For a US president to employ it against his own country is tragic."
Mother Jones compared Trump's use of whataboutism to Putin's, and consulted Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs Russian scholar Dmitry Dubrovsky for his analysis. Dubrovsky noted usage of the tactic by Trump and Putin, as well as by Marine Le Pen, as a way "to destroy the democratic values of the truth." Mother Jones wrote, "In Trump’s version of whataboutism, he repeatedly takes a word leveled in criticism against him and turns it back on his opponents—sidestepping the accusation and undercutting the meaning of the word at the same time."
This section contains too many or too-lengthy quotations for an encyclopedic entry. (September 2017)
John Austin Baker wrote in 1982 that whataboutery – the practice of both parties in The Troubles in Northern Ireland to highlight what the other side had done to them – was, in the words of Bishop (later Cardinal) Cahal Daly, "one of the commonest forms of evasion of personal moral responsibility." Joe Austin was critical of the practice of whataboutism in Northern Ireland in a 1994 piece, The Obdurate and the Obstinate, writing: "And I'd no time at all for 'What aboutism' ... if you got into it you were defending the indefensible."
In his book The New Cold War (2008), Edward Lucas characterized whataboutism as "the favourite weapon of Soviet propagandists". Juhan Kivirähk and colleagues called it a "polittechnological" strategy. Konstantin von Eggert wrote in 2012, "Whataboutism, once familiar to diplomats, politicians and Kremlinologists, dates back to the 1960s. It was used to ironically describe the Soviet Union's efforts at countering Western criticism." The Guardian in 2013 described whataboutism as "practically a national ideology" of Russia. Writing in The National Interest in 2013, Samuel Charap was critical of the tactic, commenting, "Russian policy makers, meanwhile, gain little from petulant bouts of 'whataboutism'". National security journalist Julia Ioffe commented in a 2014 article, "Anyone who has ever studied the Soviet Union knows about a phenomenon called 'whataboutism.'" Ioffe cited the Soviet response to criticism, "And you are lynching negroes," as a "classic" form of whataboutism. She said that Russia Today was "an institution that is dedicated solely to the task of whataboutism," and concluded that whataboutism was a "sacred Russian tactic". Garry Kasparov discussed the Soviet tactic in his book Winter Is Coming, calling it a form of "Soviet propaganda" and a way for Russian bureaucrats to "respond to criticism of Soviet massacres, forced deportations, and gulags". Mark Adomanis commented for The Moscow Times in 2015 that "Whataboutism was employed by the Communist Party with such frequency and shamelessness that a sort of pseudo mythology grew up around it." Adomanis observed, "Any student of Soviet history will recognize parts of the whataboutist cannon."
Writing in 2016 for Bloomberg News, journalist Leonid Bershidsky called whataboutism a "Russian tradition", while The National called the tactic "an effective rhetorical weapon". In their book The European Union and Russia (2016), Forsberg and Haukkala characterized whataboutism as an "old Soviet practice", and they observed that the strategy "has been gaining in prominence in the Russian attempts at deflecting Western criticism". In her book, Security Threats and Public Perception, author Elizaveta Gaufman called the whataboutism technique "A Soviet/Russian spin on liberal anti-Americanism", comparing it to the Soviet rejoinder, "And you are lynching negroes". Foreign Policy supported this assessment. In 2016, Canadian columnist Terry Glavin asserted in the Ottawa Citizen that Noam Chomsky used the tactic in an October 2001 speech, delivered after the September 11 attacks, that was critical of US foreign policy. Daphne Skillen discussed the tactic in her book, Freedom of Speech in Russia, identifying it as a "Soviet propagandist's technique" and "a common Soviet-era defence". In a piece for CNN, Jill Dougherty compared the technique to The pot calling the kettle black. Dougherty wrote: "There's another attitude ... that many Russians seem to share, what used to be called in the Soviet Union 'whataboutism,' in other words, 'who are you to call the kettle black?'" Writing for The Diplomat, Catherine Putz commented that during the 2016 presidential election, Trump used the technique to defend his support of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been accused of human rights violations. Putz observed that when The New York Times asked about Erdoğan's treatment of journalists, teachers, and dissidents, Trump replied with a criticism of the United States itself and its past regarding civil liberties. Putz pointed out, "The core problem is that this rhetorical device precludes discussion of issues (ex: civil rights) by one country (ex: the United States) if that state lacks a perfect record."
Russian journalist Alexey Kovalev told GlobalPost in 2017 that the tactic was "an old Soviet trick". Who Lost Russia? author Peter Conradi called whataboutism "a form of moral relativism that responds to criticism with the simple response: 'But you do it too'." Conradi echoed Gaufman's comparison of the tactic to the Soviet response, "Over there they lynch Negroes". Writing for Forbes in 2017, journalist Melik Kaylan explained the term's increased pervasiveness in referring to Russian propaganda tactics: "Kremlinologists of recent years call this 'whataboutism' because the Kremlin's various mouthpieces deployed the technique so exhaustively against the U.S." Kaylan commented upon a "suspicious similarity between Kremlin propaganda and Trump propaganda". In 2017, The New Yorker described the tactic as "a strategy of false moral equivalences," and Clarence Page called the technique "a form of logical jiu-jitsu". Foreign Policy wrote that Russian whataboutism was "part of the national psyche". EurasiaNet stated that "Moscow's geopolitical whataboutism skills are unmatched," while Paste correlated whataboutism's rise with the increasing societal consumption of fake news. After the 2017 Congressional baseball shooting, journalist Chuck Todd criticized the tenor of political debate, commenting, "What-about-ism is among the worst instincts of partisans on both sides." Writing for National Review, commentator Ben Shapiro criticized the practice, whether it was used by those espousing right-wing politics or left-wing politics; Shapiro concluded: "It’s all dumb. And it’s making us all dumber." Michael J. Koplow of Israel Policy Forum wrote that the usage of whataboutism had become a crisis; concluding that the tactic did not yield any benefits, Koplow charged that "whataboutism from either the right or the left only leads to a black hole of angry recriminations from which nothing will escape." Writing for The Washington Post, former United States Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul wrote critically of Trump's use of the tactic and compared him to Putin. McFaul commented, "That’s exactly the kind of argument that Russian propagandists have used for years to justify some of Putin’s most brutal policies." Masha Gessen wrote for The New York Times that usage of the tactic by Trump was shocking to Americans, commenting, "No American politician in living memory has advanced the idea that the entire world, including the United States, was rotten to the core." Los Angeles Times contributor Matt Welch classed the tactic among "six categories of Trump apologetics". Mother Jones called the tactic, "a traditional Russian propaganda strategy", and observed, "The whataboutism strategy has made a comeback and evolved in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia."
- "whataboutism", Oxford Living Dictionaries, Oxford University Press, 2017, archived from the original on 9 March 2017, retrieved 21 July 2017,
Origin - 1990s: from the way in which counter-accusations may take the form of questions introduced by ‘What about —?’. [...] Also called whataboutery
- Zimmer, Ben (June 9, 2017). "The Roots of the 'What About?' Ploy". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 22 July 2017.
"Whataboutism" is another name for the logical fallacy of "tu quoque" (Latin for "you also"), in which an accusation is met with a counter-accusation, pivoting away from the original criticism. The strategy has been a hallmark of Soviet and post-Soviet propaganda, and some commentators have accused President Donald Trump of mimicking Mr. Putin's use of the technique.
- "whataboutism", Cambridge Dictionary
- Kurtzleben, Danielle (17 March 2017). "Trump Embraces One Of Russia's Favorite Propaganda Tactics — Whataboutism". NPR. Retrieved 20 May 2017.
This particular brand of changing the subject is called 'whataboutism' — a simple rhetorical tactic heavily used by the Soviet Union and, later, Russia.
- Sakwa, Richard (2015), Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands, I.B.Tauris, p. 216, ISBN 978-1784530648
- Trudolyubov, Maxim (15 January 2017), "How Putin succeeded in undermining our institutions", Newsweek, retrieved 3 July 2017,
The way the Kremlin has always reacted to reports about corruption or arbitrary police rule, or the state of Russia’s penal institutions, is by generating similar reports about the West. Whatever the other party says the answer is always the same: 'Look who’s talking.' This age-old technique, dubbed 'whataboutism,' is in essence an appeal to hypocrisy; its only purpose is to discredit the opponent, not to refute the original argument.
- Staff writer (31 January 2008). "Whataboutism - Come again, Comrade?". The Economist. Retrieved 3 July 2017.
Soviet propagandists during the cold war were trained in a tactic that their western interlocutors nicknamed 'whataboutism'.
- Staff writer (11 December 2008). "The West is in danger of losing its moral authority". European Voice. Retrieved 3 July 2017.
'Whataboutism' was a favourite tactic of Soviet propagandists during the old Cold War. Any criticism of the Soviet Union’s internal aggression or external repression was met with a 'what about?' some crime of the West, from slavery to the Monroe doctrine.
- Lucas, Edward (7 February 2017), "Trump has become Putin's ally in Russia's war on the West", CNN, retrieved 3 July 2017,
'Whataboutism' was a favorite Kremlin propaganda technique during the Cold War. It aimed to portray the West as so morally flawed that its criticism of the Soviet empire was hypocritical.
- Zimmer, Ben (June 9, 2017). "The Roots of the 'What About?' Ploy". The Wall Street Journal.
- "whataboutery", Oxford Living Dictionaries, Oxford University Press, 2017, retrieved 26 July 2017
- Richards, Molly (2017-09-13). "Whataboutery and whataboutism – what's it all about?". OxfordWords blog. Retrieved 2017-09-26.
- Umland, Andreas (March 8, 2017), "The Ukrainian Government's Memory Institute Against the West", IndraStra Global, 3 (3), ISSN 2381-3652, retrieved 23 July 2017,
Instead, apologetic Ukrainian polemists regularly react to criticism by domestic and foreign observers with, what was known during Soviet times, as 'whataboutism': What about Polish whitewashing of the past? What about Israel's selective memory? What about crimes by other national liberation movements?
- Ioffe, Julia (1 June 2012), "Russia's Syrian Excuse", The New Yorker, retrieved 3 July 2017,
This posture is a defense tactic, the Kremlin’s way of adapting to a new post-Cold War geopolitical reality. 'Whataboutism' was a popular tactic even back in Soviet days, for example, but objectivity wasn’t.
- Seddon, Max (25 November 2014), "Russia Is Trolling The U.S. Over Ferguson Yet Again", BuzzFeed News, retrieved 3 July 2017,
Since the Cold War, Moscow has engaged in a political points-scoring exercise known as 'whataboutism' used to shut down criticism of Russia's own rights record by pointing out abuses elsewhere. All criticism of Russia is invalid, the idea goes, because problems exist in other countries too.
- Keating, Joshua (21 March 2014). "The Long History of Russian Whataboutism". Slate.com. Retrieved 17 November 2014.
- Drezner, Daniel (20 August 2014). "Ferguson, whataboutism and American soft power". The Washington Post. Retrieved 17 November 2014.
- Elder, Miriam (April 26, 2012). "Want a response from Putin's office? Russia's dry-cleaning is just the ticket". The Guardian. Retrieved May 16, 2012.
- Buckley, Neil (11 June 2012), "The return of whataboutism", Financial Times, archived from the original on 11 June 2012, retrieved 3 July 2017
- Zimmer, Ben (9 June 2017), "The Roots of the 'What About?' Ploy", The Wall Street Journal, retrieved 3 July 2017,
In his interview with NBC’s Megyn Kelly on Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin employed the tried-and-true tactic of 'whataboutism.'
- Harding, Luke (1 August 2013), "Edward Snowden asylum case is a gift for Vladimir Putin", The Guardian, retrieved 3 July 2017,
Russia's president is already a master of 'whataboutism' – indeed, it is practically a national ideology.
- Ioffe, Julia (March 2, 2014), "Kremlin TV Loves Anti-War Protests—Unless Russia Is the One Waging War - Studies in 'whataboutism'", The New Republic, retrieved 3 July 2017
- Bershidsky, Leonid (13 September 2016), "Hack of Anti-Doping Agency Poses New Ethical Questions", Bloomberg News, retrieved 3 July 2017,
Russian officials protested that other nations were no better, but these objections -- which were in line with a Russian tradition of whataboutism -- were swept aside.
- Osnos, Evan; Remnick, David; Yaffa, Joshua (6 March 2017), "Trump, Putin, and the New Cold War", The New Yorker, retrieved 3 July 2017
- Mackey, Robert (19 August 2014), "Russia, Iran and Egypt Heckle U.S. About Tactics in Ferguson", The New York Times, retrieved 4 July 2017,
officials in Moscow have long relied on discussions of racial inequality in the United States to counter criticism of their own human rights abuses. 'The now sacred Russian tactic of ‘whataboutism’ started with civil rights,' Ms. Ioffe wrote. 'Whenever the U.S. pointed to Soviet human rights violations, the Soviets had an easy riposte. ‘Well, you,’ they said, ‘lynch Negros.’'
- Dougherty, Jill (14 August 2014), "Ferguson Will Make It Harder for America to Set a Good Example Abroad", The New Republic, retrieved 4 July 2017,
The now sacred Russian tactic of 'whataboutism' started with civil rights: Whenever the U.S. pointed to Soviet human rights violations, the Soviets had an easy riposte. 'Well, you,' they said, 'lynch Negros.'
- Dougherty, Jill (24 July 2016), "Olympic doping ban unleashes fury in Moscow", CNN, retrieved 4 July 2017,
There's another attitude ... that many Russians seem to share, what used to be called in the Soviet Union 'whataboutism,' in other words, 'who are you to call the kettle black?'
- Sullivan, Jake (7 February 2017). "The Slippery Slope of Trump's Dangerous 'Whataboutism'". Foreign Policy. Retrieved 20 May 2017.
Now something new is happening. The American president is taking Putin’s 'what about you' tactic and turning it into 'what about us?' He is taking the very appealing and very American impulse toward self-criticism and perverting it. It’s simplistic, even childish — but more importantly, it’s dangerous.
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'Whataboutism' was a favourite tactic of Soviet propagandists during the old Cold War. Any criticism of the Soviet Union's internal repression or external aggression was met by asking 'what about' some crime of the West, from slavery to the Monroe doctrine. In the era when political prisoners rotted in Siberia and you could be shot for trying to leave the socialist paradise, whataboutism was little more than a debating tactic. Most people inside the Soviet Union, particularly towards the end, knew that their system was based on lies and murder.
- Stevenson, Angus, ed. (2010), "whataboutism", Oxford Dictionary of English: Third Edition, Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780199571123, retrieved 23 July 2017, (Subscription required (, ))
Origin - 1990s: from the way in which counter-accusations may take the form of questions introduced by 'What about —?'
- Zimmer, Ben (June 9, 2017). "The Roots of the 'What About?' Ploy". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 22 July 2017.
The term was popularized by articles in 2007 and 2008 by Edward Lucas, senior editor at the Economist. Mr. Lucas, who served as the magazine’s Moscow bureau chief from 1998 to 2002, saw 'whataboutism' as a typical Cold War style of argumentation, with “the Kremlin’s useful idiots” seeking to “match every Soviet crime with a real or imagined western one.”
- Lucas, Edward (October 29, 2007). "In Russia's shadow – The Kremlin's useful idiots". Retrieved 22 July 2017.
- "In Russia's shadow – The Katyn deniers". The Economist. November 2, 2007. Retrieved 22 July 2017.
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This age-old technique, dubbed 'whataboutism,' is in essence an appeal to hypocrisy; its only purpose is to discredit the opponent, not to refute the original argument.
- Taylor, Adam (27 August 2014), "North Korea: Ferguson was a 'disgrace' and the United States is now 'laughingstock of the world'", The Washington Post, retrieved 5 July 2017,
Of course, this all seems like a big case of 'whataboutism' – an appeal to hypocrisy designed to undercut a critic's argument by pointing out that they have too done things they should be criticized for. It's a 'Tu quoque' or 'you, too' argument, and ultimately a logical fallacy, designed not to address the criticism but distract from it.
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whataboutism, the debate tactic demanding that questions about morally indefensible acts committed by your side be deflected with pettifogging discussion of unrelated sins committed by your opponent’s side.
- Bennetts, Marc (5 February 2014), "Critics of Russia need not resort to hyperbole", The Guardian, p. 30
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'whataboutism,' a disingenuous message designed to deflect criticism of its own actions rather than present real criticism.
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- Skillen, Daphne (2016), Freedom of Speech in Russia: Politics and Media from Gorbachev to Putin, BASEES/Routledge Series on Russian and East European Studies, Routledge, pp. 30, 110, 296, ISBN 978-1138787667
- Judge, Michael (22 March 2017), "Q&A: Garry Kasparov on the press and propaganda in Trump's America", Columbia Journalism Review, retrieved 4 July 2017,
Moral relativism, 'whataboutism,' has always been a favorite weapon of illiberal regimes. For a US president to employ it against his own country is tragic. Trump repeating Putin’s words—and nearly Stalin’s—by calling the press the enemy of the people, has repercussions around the world.
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- Whitmore, Brian (6 September 2016), "Deconstructing Whataboutism", The Morning Vertical, State News Service – via HighBeam Research,
Deconstructing Whataboutism - In the second part of its guide to Russian propaganda, Euromaidan Press takes a look at 'Whataboutism.'
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One of the most trusted Soviet techniques during the Cold War came to be known in the West as 'what-about-ism'. Faced with an accusation, for example that the Soviet Union worked political dissidents to death in prison camps, the propagandist would respond: well, what about those black men being forced to work on chain gangs in the South? This was effective, because by the time anyone had explained that the two are not, in fact, morally equivalent, the technique had done its work, changing the subject away from the gulag.
- Headley, James (September 2015), "Challenging the EU's claim to moral authority: Russian talk of'double standards'", Asia Europe Journal, 13 (3): 297–307, doi:10.1007/s10308-015-0417-y, retrieved 4 July 2017,
Soviet-style 'whataboutism' which signifies a revival of Cold War-style propaganda
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Russian diplomats have been lately criticized for restoring the Soviet habit of 'whataboutism'
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Soviet-style practice of 'whataboutism' (which abandons the practice of dispassionate journalism), with a focus on discrediting the policies of the US government
- Glavin, Terry (30 November 2016), "Sorry liberals, you're dead wrong about Fidel Castro", Ottawa Citizen, retrieved 3 July 2017,
What about how beastly the United States has been to the indigenous Hawaiians? What about all the Filipinos killed by Americans? What about the conquest of the northern half of Mexico? What about the ghastly friendships the United States has cultivated over the years in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua? What about the poor Palestinians? What about all the seedy allies the United States is taking on in its so-called War on Terror?
- Khazan, Olga (2 August 2013). "The Soviet-Era Strategy That Explains What Russia Is Doing With Snowden". The Atlantic. Retrieved 3 July 2017.
Whataboutistm: a rhetorical defense that alleges hypocrisy from the accuser. ... it allows the Kremlin a moment of whataboutism, a favorite, Soviet-era appeal to hypocrisy: Russia is not that bad, you see, because other countries have also committed various misdeeds, and what about those?
- Akyol, Mustafa (7 March 2017), "How Germany accidentally gave Erdogan a boost ahead of key vote", Al-Monitor, retrieved 3 July 2017,
'Whataboutism.' This was a term originally coined to describe Soviet propaganda during the Cold War about the “real democracy” in the USSR and the hypocrisy in the West. All criticisms about the Soviet condition would be dismissed by pointing to flaws and double standards in the West, real or perceived, and asking “What about this?” “What about that?” The real issue at stake, that the USSR was a brutal dictatorship, was never addressed.
- Taylor, Adam (12 April 2017), "How the Russian Embassy in London uses Twitter to undermine the West", The Washington Post, retrieved 3 July 2017
- Weiss, Michael (4 November 2016), "Russian Dressing: When Donald Trump Was More Anti-NATO Than Vladimir Putin", The Daily Beast, retrieved 3 July 2017,
In stark contrast with his predecessors for high office, he also regularly traffics in 'whataboutism,' a Soviet-honed method of changing the conversation.
- Garver, Rob (18 December 2015), "Donald Trump's New Role: Apologist for Vladimir Putin", The Fiscal Times, retrieved 3 July 2017,
In the depths of the Cold War, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were locked in a global battle of ideas about how governments should treat their people and what political forms were best at delivering peace and prosperity, a particular style of argument became popular and was given the ironic name, 'whataboutism.' ... During the Cold War, whataboutism was generally the province of Soviet spokesmen and their defenders in the West.
- Nikitin, Vadim, "The long read: From Russia with love – how Putin is winning over hearts and minds", The National, archived from the original on 4 February 2016, retrieved 3 July 2017,
During the Cold War, such 'whataboutism' was used by the Kremlin to counter any criticism of Soviet policy with retorts about American slavery or British imperialism. The strategy remains an effective rhetorical weapon to this day.
- Foxall, Andrew (16 November 2014), "Crimea, Chechnya and Putin's Double Standards", The Moscow Times, retrieved 3 July 2017,
Those wishing to understand Putin's linguistic gymnastics should look up 'whataboutism.' The term emerged at the height of the Cold War and described a favorite tactic of Soviet propagandists — the tendency to deflect any criticism of the Soviet Union by saying 'what about' a different situation or problem in the West. As Putin's language suggests, the practice is alive and well in today's Russia. Whataboutism is a way of shutting down discussion, discouraging critical thinking, and opposing open debate. It is a key feature of Russian politics these days.
- Taylor, Adam (30 December 2014), "What if North Korea didn't hack Sony?", The Washington Post, retrieved 4 July 2017,
They are a modern take on the 'whataboutism' deployed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The logic behind 'whataboutism' isn't to deny your own crimes, of course. It's to say that those accusing you are hypocritical and unfairly targeting you.
- Miller, Christopher (29 April 2015), "Russian media is loving the Baltimore riots", Mashable, retrieved 4 July 2017,
Russia's propaganda machine got to work exploiting the unrest with what is known locally as 'whataboutism.' In the Soviet era, any criticism of the Motherland — such human rights violations or censorship — was met with a 'what about...' in an attempt to redirect attention away from Moscow.
- "Russian and Ukrainian Propaganda Through the Looking Glass", Russia!, Russia! magazine, 9 May 2015, retrieved 4 July 2017,
a textbook example of every possible Soviet cliché, particularly and most glaringly whataboutism.
- Adomanis, Mark (5 April 2015), "U.S. Should Think Twice Before Criticizing Russia", The Moscow Times, retrieved 3 July 2017,
Whataboutism's efficacy decreased for a certain period of time, in no small part because many of the richest targets (like the Jim Crow racial segregation laws) were reformed out of existence, but it has made something of a rebound over the past few years.
- MacDonald, Euan (9 June 2017), "Euan MacDonald: Ukraine's Friend & Foe Of The Week", Kyiv Post, retrieved 4 July 2017,
Putin dodged, just as a trained KGB officer would do. He even engaged in the favorite Kremlin 'whataboutism'
- Kovalev, Alexey (22 March 2017), "'You're Fake News!': Russia Borrows the Worst from the West", The Moscow Times, retrieved 4 July 2017,
In Russia, screaming 'fake news' as a response to any criticism has an older relative in 'whataboutism' — a rhetorical fallacy favored by both Soviet and modern Russian propaganda, where Moscow’s actions are justified by references to real or perceived crimes and slights by the Kremlin’s foes abroad.
- Szostek, Joanna (June 2017), "The Power and Limits of Russia's Strategic Narrative in Ukraine: The Role of Linkage", Perspectives on Politics, 15 (2): 379–395, doi:10.1017/S153759271700007X, retrieved 4 July 2017,
Disinformation and 'whataboutism' undoubtedly feature strongly in Russian state-sponsored media content
- Pomerantsev, Peter; Weiss, Michael (2014), The menace of unreality: How the Kremlin weaponizes information, culture and money (PDF), New York: Institute of Modern Russia, The Interpreter, p. 5, retrieved 4 July 2017,
Russia combines Soviet-era 'whataboutism' and Chekist 'active measures' with a wised-up, post-modern smirk that says that everything is a sham.
- Huseynov, Vasif (2016), "Soft power geopolitics: how does the diminishing utility of military power affect the Russia-West confrontation over the 'Common Neighbourhood'", Eastern Journal of European Studies, 7 (2): 71–90, retrieved 4 July 2017
- Skaskiw, Roman (27 March 2016), "Nine Lessons of Russian Propaganda", Small Wars Journal, retrieved 5 July 2017,
Russian propaganda destroys meaning. They pursue several tactics including the false moral equivalences of "whataboutism," polluting the information space
- David, Maxine (2 March 2015), "What Boris Nemtsov's Assassination Says About Putin's Climate of Fear", The New Republic, retrieved 5 July 2017,
A familiar phenomenon for Russian watchers is in full swing: 'whataboutism,' where any criticism of the Russian elite is met with a 'well, what about…' response, framing the critic as a hypocrite representing exactly that which they criticize—sending any dialogue back to the level of squabbling.
- Gessen, Keith (2014), "What's the Matter with Russia: Putin and the Soviet Legacy", Foreign Affairs, 93: 182, retrieved 4 July 2017,
More broadly, Russian political elites have clearly decided that they will no longer beat themselves up for the sins of the past-after all, other countries have sinned, too, they like to note, in the style of classic Soviet 'whataboutism.'
- Opoka, Iurii, "International Approaches to the Crisis in Ukraine" (PDF), Polish Journal of Political Science, 2 (2): 73, retrieved 4 July 2017,
three main techniques that are used by Russian propaganda for constructing 'right' agenda for EU’s media: 'what-about-ism' (we can’t criticize Russia, because the West does the same), 'An aversion to moral clarity' ( the truth is in the middle), 'It’s-all-our-fault-ism' (the West has provoked Russia).
- MacFarquhar, Neil (20 July 2016), "A Doping Scandal Appears Unlikely to Tarnish Russia's President", The New York Times, retrieved 5 July 2017,
This form of 'whataboutism' has been rife under Mr. Putin — he often responds to criticism of Russia by suggesting that the United States is worse.
- Mandel, Seth (1 May 2014), "Europe - The Vladimir Putin Fan Club: From left to right, they're fronting for a tyrant.", Commentary, retrieved 5 July 2017,
This is another throwback to the Cold War, and one Putin himself is fond of, called 'Whataboutism.' The essence of Whataboutism is to turn any complaint about Russia into an accusation that whatever it might be doing, the West is doing and has done worse. Despite the constant protestations that the Cold War is over, these attempts to turn criticism of the Kremlin back on the critics are often nothing more than a Putin-era version of anti-anti-Communism.
- Clifton, Denise (20 July 2017), "Childish Rants or Putin-Style Propaganda?", Mother Jones, retrieved 22 July 2017,
a traditional Russian propaganda strategy called 'whataboutism' ... In Trump’s version of whataboutism, he repeatedly takes a word leveled in criticism against him and turns it back on his opponents—sidestepping the accusation and undercutting the meaning of the word at the same time.
- Bertrand, Natasha (4 April 2017), "'Poisoned' Russian dissident: Trump echoed 'one of the Kremlin's oldest propaganda tools'", Business Insider, retrieved 4 July 2017,
Indeed, Putin's near-default response to criticism of how he runs Russia is whataboutism — a technique used by Soviet propagandists to deflect criticism from the West.
- von Eggert, Konstantin (25 July 2012). "Due West: 'Whataboutism' Is Back - and Thriving". RIA Novosti. Retrieved 23 July 2017.
Whataboutism, once familiar to diplomats, politicians and Kremlinologists, dates back to the 1960s. It was used to ironically describe the Soviet Union's efforts at countering Western criticism.
- Dougherty, Jill (2014), Everyone Lies: The Ukraine Conflict and Russia’s Media Transformation (PDF), Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, retrieved 4 July 2017,
'what-about-ism,' a time-worn propaganda technique used by the Soviet government in which criticism is deflected by cries of 'but what about?...'
- Dougherty, Jill (27 March 2014), "Putin's Iron-Fisted Message", The Huffington Post, retrieved 3 July 2017
- van Zuylen-Wood, Simon (4 May 2017), "At RT, News Breaks You - U.S. intelligence officials have accused the Kremlin-funded network of helping swing the election to Trump. Could such a little-watched cable channel be that powerful?", Bloomberg News, retrieved 4 July 2017,
The Financial Times described the network’s nonstop anti-U.S. coverage as 'whataboutism'—as in sure, Russia has problems, but what about the States? ... In 2016, RT America at last began proving its usefulness to the Russian government. The outlet remained as second-rate as ever, but during an election campaign governed by populist rage, anti-Establishment whataboutism had fresh appeal.
- "Azerbaijan Concerned About Human Rights -- In The United States". RFERL. 16 January 2015. Retrieved 3 July 2017.
The parliamentary hearing appeared to be an exercise in so-called 'whataboutism,' the Soviet-era rhetorical tactic of responding to criticism about rights abuses by citing real or imagined abuses committed by the West.
- Geybulla, Arzu (22 November 2016), "In the crosshairs of Azerbaijan's patriotic trolls", Open Democracy, retrieved 4 July 2017,
Whataboutism is the most popular tactic against foreign critics; 'how dare you criticise Azerbaijan, get your own house in order!'
- Tharoor, Ishaan (6 December 2016), "Turkey condemns state of press freedom in Europe and the US", The Washington Post, retrieved 5 July 2017,
In what amounts to an official document of whataboutism, the Turkish statement listed a roster of supposed transgressions by various governments now scolding Turkey for its dramatic purge of state institutions and civil society in the wake of a failed coup attempt in July.
- Marten, Kimberly (20 June 2016), "What Russia's Olympic ban means for Vladimir Putin", The Washington Post, retrieved 3 July 2017
- David, Maxine (2016), "Chapter 11 US–Russia relations in Obama's second term", in Bentley, Michelle; Holland, Jack, The Obama Doctrine: A Legacy of Continuity in US Foreign Policy?, Routledge Studies in US Foreign Policy, Routledge, p. 164, ISBN 978-1138831223,
Indeed, any Western critique of Russian foreign policy is inevitably met with a 'whataboutist' set of comments that point out the West's failings, not least because of the activities of the Kremlin trolls
- Weiss, Michael (4 November 2016), "When Donald Trump Was More Anti-NATO Than Vladimir Putin", The Daily Beast, retrieved 5 July 2017,
In stark contrast with his predecessors for high office, he also regularly traffics in 'whataboutism,' a Soviet-honed method of changing the conversation. Whenever human rights abuses or the trampling of freedoms abroad is raised, he shifts to the real or perceived shortcomings of the United States.
- Feldmann, Linda; Kiefer, Francine (18 May 2017), "How Mueller appointment may calm a roiled Washington", The Christian Science Monitor, retrieved 5 July 2017,
Trump also engaged in 'what-aboutism': 'With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special counsel appointed!' he tweeted twice in three hours.
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when you try to point out those inconsistencies or catch him red-handed lying, there’s no point because he’ll evade your question, he knows that he can just drown you in meaningless factoids or false moral equivalencies or by using what is called ‘whataboutism.’
- Todd, Chuck (21 February 2017), "MTP DAILY for February 21, 2017, MSNBC", Meet the Press – via InfoTrac,
Folks, comments like these are reminding some people of an old Soviet tactic known as whataboutism. ... Whataboutism is the trick of turning any argument against the opponent when faced with accusations of corruption, they claim the entire world is corrupt.
- Grant, Sarah (November 13, 2017). "Watch John Oliver Break Down Trump's Three Dangerous Manipulation Tactics". Rolling Stone. Retrieved November 16, 2017.
- The Right Reverend John Austin Baker (January 1982). "Ireland and Northern Ireland" (PDF). The Furrow. 33 (1). Retrieved 9 August 2017.
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And I'd no time at all for 'What aboutism' - you know, people who said 'Yes, but what about what's been done to us? ... That had nothing to do with it, and if you got into it you were defending the indefensible.
- Lucas, Edward (2008), "Chapter 5. The 'New Tsarism': What Makes Russia's Leaders Tick", The New Cold War: Putin's Russia and the Threat to the West, Palgrave Macmillan, p. 144, ISBN 978-0230606128
- Kivirähk, Juhan; Maliukevičius, Nerijus; Yeremeev, Olexandr (2010), The 'Humanitarian Dimension' of Russian Foreign Policy Toward Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, and the Baltic States, Centre for East European Policy Studies, pp. 30, 300
- Charap, Samuel (July 2013), "Beyond the Russian Reset", The National Interest, Center for the National Interest (126): 39–43, retrieved 5 July 2017 – via JSTOR,
Russian policy makers, meanwhile, gain little from petulant bouts of 'whataboutism' — responding to U.S. statements on human rights in Russia with laundry lists of purported American shortcomings.
- Adamczyk, Ed (20 August 2014), "Authoritarian countries ridicule Ferguson police efforts", UPI NewsTrack, United Press International – via InfoTrac,
Writer Julia Ioffe said, in a New Republic article last week, that Moscow authorities typically counter criticism of Russia's human rights abuses with comparisons to racial inequality in the United States, noting, "The now sacred Russian tactic of 'whataboutism' started with civil rights. Whenever the U.S. pointed to Soviet human rights violations, the Soviets had an easy riposte. 'Well, you,' they said, 'lynch Negroes.'"
- Kasparov, Garry (2015), Winter Is Coming, PublicAffairs, pp. 43, 193–194, ISBN 978-1610396202
- Nikitin, Vadim (4 February 2016), "The long read: From Russia with love -- how Putin is winning over hearts and minds", The National, Abu Dhabi, SyndiGate Media Inc. – via InfoTrac,
During the Cold War, such 'whataboutism' was used by the Kremlin to counter any criticism of Soviet policy with retorts about American slavery or British imperialism. The strategy remains an effective rhetorical weapon to this day. Whatever threadbare crowds of remaining anti-government activists are still occasionally allowed to protest in Moscow, they pale in the public imagination against the images, repeatedly shown on Russian TV, of thousands of Europeans angrily upbraiding their own governments and declaring support for Putin.
- Forsberg, Tuomas; Haukkala, Hiski (2016), The European Union and Russia, The European Union Series, Palgrave Macmillan, p. 122, ISBN 978-1137355348
- Gaufman, Elizaveta (2016), "The USA as the Primary Threat to Russia", Security Threats and Public Perception: Digital Russia and the Ukraine Crisis, New Security Challenges, Palgrave Macmillan, p. 91, ISBN 978-3319432007
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the old Soviet whataboutism whenever they were challenged on the gulag: 'But in America, you lynch Negroes.'
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- Page, Clarence (10 March 2017), "How long can President Trump's art of deflection work?", NewsOK, The Chicago Tribune, retrieved 4 July 2017,
'Whataboutism' is running rampant in the White House these days. What's that, you may ask? It's a Cold War-era term for a form of logical jiu-jitsu that helps you to win arguments by gently changing the subject. When Soviet leaders were questioned about human rights violations, for example, they might come back with, 'Well, what about the Negroes you are lynching in the South?' That's not an argument, of course. It is a deflection to an entirely different issue. It's a naked attempt to excuse your own wretched behavior by painting your opponent as a hypocrite. But in the fast-paced world of media manipulation, the Soviet leader could get away with it merely by appearing to be strong and firm in defense of his country.
- Ferris-Rotman, Amie (7 April 2017), "Dispatch - 59 Ways to Kill a Russian Reset: All it takes is a few dozen Tomahawk missiles and a lecture on human rights.", Foreign Policy, retrieved 5 July 2017,
In a country where 'whataboutism' is part of the national psyche, Russia was quick to point to Washington’s alleged failures after the strike in Syria.
- Kucera, Joshua (5 July 2017), "Russia Complains To Azerbaijan About Discrimination Against Armenians", EurasiaNet, retrieved 5 July 2017,
Moscow's geopolitical whataboutism skills are unmatched
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whataboutism from either the right or the left only leads to a black hole of angry recriminations from which nothing will escape.
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As for 'whataboutism,' Trump himself champions these kinds of cynical arguments about our country — not Russia.
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This stance has breathed new life into the old Soviet propaganda tool of 'whataboutism,' the trick of turning any argument against the opponent. When accused of falsifying elections, Russians retort that American elections are not unproblematic; when faced with accusations of corruption, they claim that the entire world is corrupt. This month, Mr. Trump employed the technique of whataboutism when he was asked about his admiration for Mr. Putin, whom the host Bill O’Reilly called 'a killer.'
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- Aspeitia, Axel Arturo Barceló, Whataboutism Defended, Academia.edu, National Autonomous University of Mexico, Department of Philosophy, retrieved 5 July 2017
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|Look up whataboutism in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- "whataboutism", Oxford Living Dictionaries, Oxford Dictionaries
- "whataboutism", Cambridge Dictionary
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Ioffe and Elder explain 'whataboutism' and other vocabulary lessons from their time reporting in Moscow.