Discussion, not diversion: A police leader’s guide to combatting the proliferation of ‘whataboutism’
It’s a rhetorical distraction that prevents making progress on key public safety challenges
By Joseph J. Lestrange, Ph.D., and Alex Goldenberg
Challenges in the policing profession, such as rising crime, recruitment and retention, perceived bias, demands for criminal justice reform and the deteriorating political discourse, have created a ripe environment to weaponize misinformation and disinformation. One of the most prevalent and fastest-growing forms of misinformation and disinformation we have seen over the past several years is the use of “whataboutism.”
Whataboutism, fundamentally, is a rhetorical technique used to deflect attention from a primary concern by introducing an unrelated or tangentially related issue as a counterargument. It appears in different forms, such as diverting attention from a topic, introducing false equivalencies, deflecting responsibility, or creating confusion around a set of facts or evidence.
The policing profession, in its current state of attrition, lack of consistent public support and recruitment challenges, is uniquely vulnerable to this trend. As police officials, we must be prepared to recognize it and implement strategies that engage both the public and the rank and file when confronted by it while navigating day-to-day public safety challenges.
How whataboutism harms the public discourse
Whataboutism, if used successfully, can manipulate public opinion, interfere with healthy debate and public discourse, and sow division and polarization in our communities. Here are four examples of it in action.
1. Whataboutism can be used to divert community attention from an emerging issue to unrelated topics.
For example, imagine a town hall convened to discuss rising hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community. Critics could highlight unrelated or historical injustices against other groups to dilute the conversation and original concern and thus prevent a meaningful dialogue about it. This potentially leaves the community less informed, less engaged, and less protected.
2. Whataboutism can be used to create a distorted perception of events by drawing false equivalencies and leading community members to view two disparate issues as being of equal importance or severity.
For example, imagine a police department is under scrutiny for its hiring practices – some community members believe hiring officers with military experience could lead to a more militarized approach to policing. A police official might respond, “Choosing veterans and nonveterans for policing roles is the same as selecting people from different colleges.” In this case, a false equivalency is created by comparing hiring veterans to individuals from different colleges. This ignores a discussion of specific skills and training that may be associated with a militarized approach to policing and also confounds two disparate hiring metrics: education and skills.
3. Whataboutism can be used to confuse individuals and groups about facts, truths, and evidence, making it challenging to address the original concern or criticism effectively.
For example, imagine an officer is shot by armed gang members. Amid public discussions and the investigation, instead of providing information to the police on the circumstances of the shooting, witnesses sympathetic to the gang member might say, “Being in a gang is not a crime, and officers in this city have a reputation for brutality and false arrest.” In this case, the statement creates confusion around the facts of the incident by making general statements about the unjustness of some officers’ behaviors and deflecting attention from the shooting by stating belonging to a gang is not a crime.
4. Whataboutism can be used to deflect responsibility or accountability for a mistake, misdeed, or failure to deliver a service.
For example, imagine a community protesting instances of alleged excessive force by police and demanding greater accountability. A critic of this dialogue could deflect responsibility by asking questions like, “What about violence in the community itself? Why aren’t you protesting that?” This practice of deflection could influence community sentiment negatively and make it more difficult to look into the original concern, excessive use of force.
Overall, the use of whataboutism can undermine solving complex problems, hinder the pursuit of truth and impede needed discussions of community concerns. This tactic can restrict meaningful dialogue between the police and the communities they serve, prevent the accurate assessment of information, damage trust and negatively influence public opinion and community sentiment. In the end, whataboutism can exacerbate already existing and sometimes growing divisions within the community or between the community and the police.
How to combat whataboutism
To counter whataboutism, it is important to critically evaluate claims, seek reliable sources and stay focused on the original topic. When encountering this tactic, we should do our best to avoid it by training ourselves to recognize red flags that others may be attempting to manipulate us.
Consider the following four approaches to create a more productive discussion:
1. Stay focused and address the argument.
When engaging in a conversation or debate, try to stay focused on the original issue or question at hand. If attempts are made to divert the conversation to unrelated topics or another issue, we can politely try to redirect it back to the central point. If the deflection persists, instead of directly responding to the efforts to engage in whataboutism, focus on addressing the specific argument or point being made in the initial discussion. Acknowledge the diversion offered as being a potential future discussion but pivot the conversation back to the original topic.
2. Highlight the fallacy and promote critical thinking.
Point out the logical fallacy and danger that comes with whataboutism. Then explain that although it may be another important issue, bringing up unrelated examples or events doesn’t address the initial concern or question effectively. Encourage a more direct and substantive discussion on the topic at hand by agreeing to come back to the divergent topic once the original topic has been exhausted. Encourage your audience, whether members of the community or the rank and file of your organization, to engage in critical thinking and analysis throughout the conversation. You can do this by suggesting they evaluate claims and consider the context.
3. Seek common ground.
Like any negotiation or effort in diplomacy, always look for areas of agreement or shared concern within the conversation. By finding this common ground, you can build trust, and it will be easier to refocus the conversation on potential solutions or areas where incremental progress can be made instead of getting stuck in a continuous cycle of whataboutism.
4. Fact-check and provide evidence.
When you are faced with misleading or distorted claims, be prepared to counter them with reliable sources of information and actual evidence. By using the process of fact-checking statements made during a discussion, you can begin to create a foundation of truth and accurate information. By doing this we can prevent, or at least mitigate, the spread of misinformation and disinformation.
Using these four approaches during sensitive discussions is critical to promote thoughtful discussions between community stakeholders and the police, especially in settings like community town halls or press conferences where police leaders are likely to encounter multiple viewpoints, perceptions and questions surrounding an issue or challenge. Remember, combating whataboutism requires patience, persistence and a commitment to constructive dialogue. By staying focused, always repivoting when needed to the original topic, addressing only the essential elements of the argument, and promoting critical thinking in discussions, you can contribute to more meaningful conversations that are less prone to diversionary tactics and more likely to result in positive and creative solutions to public safety challenges.
About the authors
Joseph J. Lestrange, Ph.D., is a senior advisor to Cardinal Point Strategies, a global strategic advisory and public policy consulting firm that specializes in homeland security, intelligence, law enforcement and public safety matters and was recently appointed as a fellow to Rutgers University’s Center on Policing and Community Resilience. To recruit, place and mentor future police leaders, he is also a senior consultant with Public Sector Search & Consulting, a California-based executive search firm that specializes in the placement of public safety and police leadership executives.
Lestrange served over three decades as a commissioned federal law enforcement officer in multiple international, national, regional, and local leadership roles. In his last year of government service, he was appointed senior agency official to the U.S. Council on Transnational Organized Crime – Strategic Division, created to develop “whole of government” solutions to complex public safety and national security challenges. He retired in June 2022 as the division chief of Homeland Security Investigations, D.C. headquarters, Public Safety & National Security Division, where he provided global executive oversight of all stakeholder engagement, resource planning, strategic development, case coordination and budget formulation for multiple criminal investigations, law enforcement and intelligence units, agency programs, federal task forces and interagency initiatives.
Alex Goldenberg is a lead intelligence analyst at the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI), a forefront research entity focused on detecting and mitigating online threats posed by state and non-state actors. He holds a significant role in driving proactive investigations into emerging online menaces, bringing attention to the nuances of digital threats. His research contributions, including those acclaimed by the Brookings Institution and recognized by congressional committees, highlight his depth of understanding and commitment to the field.
In tandem with his responsibilities at NCRI, Goldenberg oversees the Network Contagion Labs program, dedicating his efforts to train the upcoming cadre of online trust and safety professionals, some of whom have found their way into pivotal roles with U.S. intelligence agencies. Esteemed media platforms such as NPR, the New York Times and NBC News regularly seek his insights on contemporary digital threats.
In addition to his work at NCRI, Goldenberg also serves as a fellow at Rutgers University’s Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience, aligning himself with its mission to protect communities against acts of terrorism and mass violence. His professional journey has seen him contribute significantly to research on the intricacies of online radicalization, and at the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED), where he forged strategies related to public-private partnerships.