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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

“Whataboutism”


I haven’t posted to News Frames in a while, as I’ve focused instead on my “RAW semantics” project (which looks at the “neurosemantics” writings of Robert Anton Wilson). But a couple of thoughts occurred to me recently about so-called “whataboutism” and the framing that accompanies it… and this seemed worth commenting on.

Firstly (as a pre-emptive), making comparisons, say between governments or political parties on failures and wrongdoings, etc, seems a valid endeavor to me. As does highlighting the hypocrisies evident in media (so-called “MSM”) commentary – for example, the kind that attributes a generalised moral superiority to the “home” country, while largely demonising another.

That said, “whataboutism” clearly refers to something else – either 1) a compulsion to frame all apparent wrongdoings in terms of the wrongdoing of one particular “side”, or 2) a conscious tactic to persistently shift the framing of blame from one “side” to another. There’s an interesting 2008 article here (cached here, bypassing subscription requirement), from The Economist, that claims whataboutism is an old Soviet propaganda tactic.

Before it had the name “whataboutism”, I regarded the compulsion as harmless and “adolescent” – akin to the stereotype of, say, students blaming everything on their own government, “The Man”, “The System”, etc, coupled with a sort of “your enemy’s enemy is your friend” logic. But boosted – or indeed “weaponised” – on social media and Youtube, etc, I no longer regard it as harmless.

I first noticed whataboutery swamping social media during the Trump years (2016 and after). The framing appeared fairly simple: “If Trump seems bad, what about Democratic presidents (or generalised ‘liberals’)…”, often accompanied by a mocking reduction of any criticism of Trump to “Trump is Hitler”. The effect was, of course, to deflect criticism of Trump back onto “hysterical libs”. And it appeared to work – at least to the extent that it got boosted by armies of bots and trolls, supercharged by Facebook algorithms, etc.

Part of that, during Trump’s presidency, was the “Russiagate” frame – the mocking of any and all claims that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, etc, as emanating, again, from “hysterical libs”. With any criticism of Vladimir Putin reduced to the sarcastically intoned “Putin is Hitler”.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Snowden said the advance warnings of Russia’s invasion were just a distraction
from a story about the CIA collecting data from American citizens

Most recently, many prominent “dissident” commentators, including Edward Snowden, lined up to ridicule Biden’s advance warnings that Russia was about to invade Ukraine. (Snowden actually blamed the US/western media for warmongering at this point – but I couldn’t find a single case of a “mainstream” US media outlet calling for military action; quite the opposite: they all seemed to be calling for calm and negotiations). When, a few days later, Russia launched a full-scale military invasion, I thought it might mark the end of this particular strand of whataboutist framing.

That turned out to be over-optimistic. After coming to terms with the fact that Russia was waging a major war of aggression, the instinct of many of these commentators (Glenn Greenwald, Tucker Carlson, Tulsi Gabbard, Jimmy Dore, Max Blumenthal, Michael Tracey, Jeremy Scahill, John Pilger, Caitlin Johnstone, etc) was either to blame America/”the West” for “provoking” Russia, or to focus on “western media hypocrisy”, for taking a different approach to, say, the 2003 war on Iraq. “Logically”, the latter seems a fair enough point, but comparisons to, say, 2003 wouldn’t be my initial and persistent response to a war waged in 2022 – ie it wouldn’t be my primary frame of reference (not to mention that “the media” has transformed in important ways over the last two decades, in a McLuhanist sense).

Bad takes prior to the invasion. Tulsi Gabbard says the people against the invasion are the warmongers.
Michael Tracey mocks the reporting of warnings of an imminent invasion based on troop build-ups.

And the point about US “provocation” (based mostly on framing the 2014 events/upheavals in Ukraine as a “US-backed coup”) contradicts pretty much everything I know about the 2014 Maidan Revolution, and seems a strange and weak attempt to frame largely non-military “American influences” (which don’t appear contrary to the Ukrainian population’s preferences, judging from polls, popular votes, etc) as military “provocations”. The “US-backed coup” framing also sounds like the propaganda that’s been coming out of the Kremlin.

Another way of framing this is as hard determinism versus soft determinism. The American “influences” in Ukraine have been framed as directly causing a situation which Putin can’t tolerate, ie “provocation” (hard determinism), whereas those US “influences” can instead be seen against a backdrop of all kinds of other influences and historical trends, which together made the situation (that Putin apparently can’t tolerate) simply possible (soft determinism).

George Monbiot, the UK journalist, commented on similar “whatabout” framings of Russian aggression on Twitter and in a Guardian article. As he puts it, these commentators “are rightly opposed to western imperialism, but will bend over backwards to accommodate Russian imperialism.”

Whataboutism tends to frame itself as “balanced”, in the sense that it provides “two sides” to what was previously “one-sided” criticism (ie the original criticism, and then the counter, “whatabout”, criticism). But as the examples that Monbiot cites demonstrate, this “balancing” always seems to occur in one direction only – which makes it look like a side-taking compulsion or a partisan tactic, rather than, say, a principled stand against “imperialism”, regardless of perpetrator.

A clear, empirically demonstrable case of this can be seen in the prolific tweets of Glenn Greenwald, as I documented in a previous long article. Over a period of years, Greenwald regularly and frequently responded to criticisms of Donald Trump’s idiocies and wrongdoings by posting supposedly comparable idiocies and wrongdoings from previous Democratic presidents or politicians. Now that Joe Biden is president (and target of much vitriolic criticism, some of it unjustified or inaccurate), might we expect at least a few examples of Greenwald employing his “whatabout” tweeting in a direction that favours Biden? Well… good luck finding such examples!

So what?

Why give a damn about whataboutism? My interest stems from noticing that social media seemed flooded with this form of argument during “interesting” periods (most recently following the Russian invasion of Ukraine). It can present itself as “non-partisan” (eg as “monitoring”, as undertaken by “media watchdogs”) – or as merely exposing hypocrisy, or countering “hysteria”, correcting institutional “bias”, etc.

Framed that way, one can imagine its rapid viral spread as organic (due to popularity) rather than engineered (botswarms, funded operations, paid trolls, etc). Single cases don’t reveal the trends. Patterns of reinforcement and support for a given person, party or “narrative” show up only in statistical studies. (I had to do my own modest empirical study of Glenn Greenwald’s social media output to convince myself, because he kept asserting that he didn’t support Trump! Eoin Higgins has conducted a similar study of Greenwald’s output).

All of which appears not to undo the pre-emptive points I made at the start. But following Marshall McLuhan’s “tetrad” thesis, we might want to ponder the ways in which “the internet” has already flipped into a largely unrecognised new “media form” – particularly for a demographic whose main usage is “A.I.” algorithm-run social media on mobile biometric-cybernetic supercomputers (aka “smartphones”). Whataboutism (as a logical form) seems to be most engaging, persuasive and shareable for those inclined to thoughts of rebellion, dissent and cynicism. The algorithms are of course programmed to maximise engagement for each individual user, based on recording and analysing in real-time their every tap, scroll, pause, movement, duration of interaction, etc, in response to the presented content.

Do I need to say more? If so, you might want to read a somehow related article that I wrote for my ‘RAW semantics’ blog.


Stop Press: Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s brand of whataboutism is apparently proving useful to the Russian state, according this this Guardian report, which claims Kremlin memos urged Russian media to use clips of Carlson.

Written by NewsFrames

March 14, 2022 at 2:07 pm

Posted in Russia, Whataboutism

3 Responses

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  1. Caitlin Johnstone, one of those mediocre writers promoted to popularity by blind algorithms, has been spewing out industrial strength whataboutism since Russia invaded. Predictably, she declares that anyone who uses the criticism of “whataboutism” against her must be an “empire loyalist”.

    In the comments section of her recent article (link below), someone asked her if we can at least agree that Putin is the aggressor in the current conflict. Her reply: “No we most certainly cannot agree on that.” (followed by a load of whataboutism blaming everything on “Western powers”).

    https://caitlinjohnstone.com/2022/03/16/the-huge-gap-between-how-serious-nuclear-war-is-and-how-seriously-its-being-taken/#comments

    Jon

    March 21, 2022 at 11:53 am

  2. There’s an organisation called Newsguard set up to monitor the spread of online disinformation and propaganda. It tracks the latest viral myths and attempts to debunk them with facts. It has a page on Russia-Ukraine disinfo: https://www.newsguardtech.com/special-reports/russian-disinformation-tracking-center/

    Don’t take it as gospel, but it’s a starting point.

    Michelle Warwick

    March 21, 2022 at 8:29 pm

  3. I’ve learned that John Oliver did a show about whataboutism, which he sums up as the implication that “all actions, regardless of context, share a moral equivalency, and since nobody is perfect, all criticism is hypocritical and everybody should do whatever they want”. Oliver presents some good examples (mostly of rightwing media actually saying “yeah, but what about…”, in response to criticisms of Trump.

    NewsFrames

    March 25, 2022 at 12:10 pm


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