What about Whataboutisms?



Dr. Kenneth Basom describes how whataboutism is used in politics to debate and deflect questions and criticisms.

JOSHUA DAUSENER, Copy Editor | [email protected]

Whataboutism has been making headlines and creating a stir in the political world as of late due to the frequent use of the debate technique by the Trump administration, media figures and regular citizens discussing politics.

Whataboutism is when someone responds to a question or argument with another criticism or question directed at their opponent, deflecting the original question with the intention of changing the subject to the wrongdoings of their opponent.

One notable example occurred when Trump responded to the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election with a tweet reading, “So many people are asking why isn’t the A.G. or Special Counsel looking at the many Hillary Clinton or Comey crimes. 33,000 e-mails deleted? What about all of the Clinton ties to Russia, including Podesta Company, Uranium deal, Russian Reset, big dollar speeches etc.”

Another instance of this technique was the president’s controversial “both sides” response to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia last year.

Trump’s backers often view the administration as outing the hypocrisy of Trump’s opponents when using whataboutism, while Trump’s detractors view whataboutism as a dodge to avoid discussing or defending the Trump administration’s actions.

Whataboutism, as it is today, originated in the Soviet Union during the Cold War, where the technique was frequently used as a propaganda device.

“It was a very common technique that the Soviet propaganda folks used,” said Kenneth Basom, a political science professor at UNI who specializes in Russian and Soviet politics and history.

“If the United States is filing an official complaint, saying, ‘Hey, you violated Soviet citizens’ human rights, their freedom of speech’[…], the Soviet spokesperson would say, ‘Well, what about the rights of black citizens in your country? They’re discriminated against.’[…] That was a frequent whataboutism,” Basom said.

Basom cited Jim Crow laws and the lynching of black Americans as major “what-about” talking points to Soviet propagandists and public figures.

Whataboutism continues to see use in Russian politics today when the policies and actions of President Vladimir Putin come under fire, but of particular interest is the increasing use of whataboutism in the United States.

Justin Holmes, a UNI political science professor who specializes in American politics and media, said that Trump is not the first American politician to employ whataboutism, but he seems to utilize the technique more frequently. 

“It’s something Trump is clearly engaged in,” Holmes said. “There were some complaints from Republicans that Obama spent a lot of time shifting blame in the early years of his administration to Bush — that’s potentially a little different than whataboutims, though […] That’s saying, ‘Your policy messed this up, and I have to fix it,’ which is different. Whataboutism is about deflection.”

When asked about the use of whataboutism in the media, Holmes said that people should judge media outlets individually, rather than the media as a single entity.

“When we talk about media, you have to be really specific about what source,” Holmes said. “We’re in this post-broadcast era where you can’t just say, ‘The media does this, the media does that.’”

Holmes also noted that partisan outlets are far more likely to engage in whataboutism than more neutral outlets.

“Fox has a lot of straight news reporting during the day, but Fox and Friends or Tucker Carlson and things like that — those guys are very opinion [oriented], and they do quite a bit of that,” Holmes said.

Basom and Holmes each seemed to question the legitimacy of whataboutism as a valid, fruitful way of discussing world events.

“It’s a way of avoiding the issue,” Basom said.

“There is a way that I don’t think it’s entirely wrong […] I think that can be fair,” Holmes said. “Trump has done this occasionally where he says, ‘Hey, wait a minute, you Democrats supported building a wall back when it wasn’t me supporting building a wall.’ Well, that’s a valid critique […] if it’s accurate.”

Holmes then raised three major concerns he holds with the use of whataboutism in the United States.

“The concern that I have […] is, of course, polarization. You are just getting this narrative, constantly, if you’re in that particular information bubble, that Democrats are corrupt, Democrats are horrible, Republicans don’t do anything bad and vice versa, and I think that reinforces polarization,” Holmes said. “The second issue is this deflection. It really distracts people from the important parts of the news.”

Holmes also referenced the Russia investigation.

“This is a very serious scandal going on here by any estimation,” Holmes said. “I think it needs to be discussed on its merits.”

The final chief concern that was raised was a continuing distrust in government from American citizens.

“It really reinforces this notion of cynicism that Americans have about politics,” Holmes said. “Americans have always been a little skeptical, but I think there are some concerns here. By blowing up this whole whataboutism thing, it makes people distrust everybody. It’s like, yeah maybe Trump’s dirty, but hey Clinton’s dirty. Everybody’s dirty, politics sucks, the end […] You are just undermining faith in the whole shebang, the whole set of institutions, everybody involved with them […], which I don’t think is healthy.”