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Tactics and tools How Russian propaganda uses “whataboutism” tactics

The propaganda tactic of “whataboutism” involves responding to criticism or asking a question in the format “What about ...?”. That is, “transfer of arrows” to the shortcomings of opponents. A hint that they have no moral right to criticize, because they themselves have the same or even more serious problems, and do not adhere to the principles that they publicly declare. It is based on the logical flaw “Te quoque” (“you are the same” or “look at yourself”).

Despite the English name, this tactic, like many other methods of propaganda and disinformation, was popularized by the Russians. Back around the 1880s, when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Empire thus defended itself from moral condemnations from the United States. But whataboutism was most widespread in the 1970s and 1980s during the apogee of the Cold War.

For example, after the Chornobyl disaster, the Soviet state news agency TASS wrote reports about accidents at nuclear facilities in the United States, such as the Three Mile Island and Jinnah nuclear power plants. Soviet propagandists claimed that the American anti-nuclear group recorded 2300 accidents and other malfunctions in 1979. In the USSR, there was even an anecdote that very well reveals the essence of this tactic:

- What is the salary of a Soviet engineer?

- But you [the racist name for African Americans] get lynched!

Indeed, acts of violence against African Americans during the US Civil Rights Movement of 1955-1968 became one of the key messages of Soviet propaganda whataboutism.

Like many other “beautiful treasures of the Soviet past”, modern Russian propagandists and officials systematically use this tactic.

Russian political viewer Abbas Galliamov, who is in opposition to the Putin regime, wrote in 2021 after watching Putin’s press conference: “Putin’s whataboutism is already quite grotesque. Sobchak asks him about torture in the FSIN system [the penitentiary system], and he first of all begins to prove that they also torture in Europe. And at what here Europe? But no, it seems that Europe matters”.

In response to criticism of its own aggressive actions, including the ongoing aggressive war against Ukraine since 2014, Russian propaganda mentions NATO operations in Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan. The fact that they were carried out against misanthropic dictatorships engaged in ethnic cleansing and international terrorist networks does not bother the propagandists. The well-known Russian propaganda narrative about “8 years and the children of Donbas” also refers to “whataboutism”.

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