Whataboutism is a term describing a propaganda technique used by the Soviet Union in its dealings with the Western world during the Cold War. When criticisms were leveled at the Soviet Union, the response would be ‘What about…’ followed by the naming of an event in the Western world.
It represents a case of ‘tu quoque’ (Latin: ‘you also’) or the ‘appeal to hypocrisy,’ a logical fallacy which attempts to discredit the opponent’s position by asserting the opponent’s failure to act consistently in accordance with that position, without directly refuting or disproving the opponent’s initial argument.
The term describing the technique was popularized in 2008 by British journalist Edward Lucas in an article for ‘The Economist,’ who said it was a tactic observed in the politics of modern Russia during a resurgence of Cold War and Soviet-era mentality within Russia’s leadership.
One of the earliest uses of the technique, as reported by ‘The Atlantic,’ was in 1947 after American diplomat William Averell Harriman criticized ‘Soviet imperialism’ in a speech. A response in ‘Pravda’ by Soviet journalist Ilya Ehrenburg criticized the United States’ laws and policies regarding race and minorities and pointed out that Soviet consideration of them as ‘insulting to human dignity’ was not being used as an excuse to start a war.
At the end of the Cold War, the usage of the tactic began dying out, but saw a resurgence in post-Soviet Russia in relation to a number of human rights violations and other criticisms expressed to the Russian government. ‘The Guardian’ writer Miriam Elder commented that Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov used the tactic and that most criticisms on human rights violations had gone unanswered. Peskov responded to Elder’s article on the difficulty of dry-cleaning in Moscow with a whataboutism on the difficulty Russians experience in obtaining a visa to the United Kingdom.
During the Cold War, the West countered whataboutism in two ways. The first was to ‘use points made by Russian leaders themselves’ so that they cannot be applied to a Western nation. The second was a push for Western nations to apply more self-criticism to their own media and government.
The term received new attention in 2014 during Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military intervention in Ukraine. It was also used in reference to Azerbaijan, which responded to criticism of its human rights record by holding parliamentary hearings on issues in the United States.
A similar term, ‘whataboutery’ was used in the United Kingdom in the 20th century, during The Troubles (the conflict in Northern Ireland).