Just asking questions
|Cogito ergo sum|
Logic and rhetoric
Just asking questions (also known as JAQing off, or as emojis: "🤔🤔🤔") is a way of attempting to make wild accusations acceptable (and hopefully not legally actionable) by framing them as questions rather than statements. It shifts the burden of proof to one's opponent; rather than laboriously having to prove that all politicians are reptoid scum, one can pull out one single odd piece of evidence and force the opponent to explain why the evidence is wrong.
The tactic is closely related to loaded questions or leading questions (which are usually employed when using it), Gish Gallops (when asking a huge number of rapid-fire questions without regard for the answers), and Argumentum ad nauseam (when asking the same question over and over in an attempt to overwhelm refutations).
The purpose of this argument method is to influence spectators' views by asking leading questions, regardless of the answers given. The term is derived from the questioner's frequent claim that they are "just asking questions," albeit in a manner much the same as political push polls. Additionally, this tactic is a way for a crank to escape the burden of proof behind extraordinary claims.
In some cases, it also helps hide the nebulousness or absurdity of the questioner's own views. For example, a 9/11 truther may ask questions about perceived irregularities in the collapse, Larry Silverstein saying "pull it," and the plane that hit the Pentagon. If turned back around on the truther, the implication is that they think that the plot involved numerous bizarre complications (rigging three buildings with explosives, making an on-the-spot decision to instruct the FDNY to detonate one of them, replacing a plane with a missile and later littering the Pentagon with plane wreckage). In avoiding proposing their own hypothesis, the questioner can come across as smoothly winning a debate, since the other person is unable to answer a "just being asked" question. In fact, it can be very useful to "just ask questions" of woos, inasmuch as getting woos to put a hypothesis forward (or even just admitting to believing something crazy) can be a worthy accomplishment.
The questioner may claim they are playing devil's advocate. This is frequently to advance an odious position with no shortage of existing advocates.
A dead give-away is when the person using this technique ignores the answers given, and just continues to ask the same questions.
First and foremost, the Socratic method (asking questions you know the likely answer to in order to stimulate critical thinking) can be a legitimate mode of discourse. And in some cases, a person may simply not feel confident enough in their position to make an assertion, so they instead ask a question in order to gather more information or elicit others' thoughts before making up their mind about a particular stance.
Second, it should be clear that "just asking questions" only applies when the answers are already well known, where the question embodies a point refuted a thousand times, and where the questioner exhibits willful ignorance. If, for example, someone phrased their political argument as a series of questions — but provided sources to back up said questions, or has raised logical arguments in said questions — then it is not enough to dismiss the argument as "just asking questions".
Betteridge's law of headlines
Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word "no." The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bullshit, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it.
JAQing off - 1. the act of spouting accusations while cowardly hiding behind the claim of "just asking questions." 2. asking questions and ignoring the answers. "He said he was going to present evidence, but instead he was just JAQing off."
Sealioning involves jumping into a conversation with endless polite, reasonable questions and demands for answers, usually of entry-level topics far below the actual conversation (e.g. "please prove sexism exists"). This tactic differs little from harassment even if its intention is earnest; instead of discussion, the effect is to derail discussion, and results in the "sealion" receiving criticism (for their ignorance) and thus feeling like a victim, when they in fact inserted themselves into a conversation that they were not part of to begin with. As an intentional tactic, it can be used to make someone feel overwhelmed and quit talking. It is comparable to running a filibuster (or perhaps a filibustering technique) and preventing anything getting done.
The nature of platforms like Twitter make it particularly easy to sealion, intentionally or not, since conversations are generally public, and context and communities are inherently compressed. In such contexts, any time there is a discussion occurring that involves underlying assumptions, any passer-by who disagrees with one of those underlying assumptions can derail the conversation and make higher-level discussion impossible if they are not ignored. The passer-by can quickly fall into the role of a sealion if persistent.
A particularly troublesome aspect of sealioning is that people who are genuine newbies asking earnest questions can still in effect be a sealion. An ignorant but earnest individual can easily have the effect of a sealion by asking participants to justify base assumptions underlying a higher-level discussion, where existing participants share an understanding of those base assumptions. This is often met with a hostile or dismissive response because the other participants in the discussion have already had those arguments at length, and such questions are derailing at best, and indistinguishable from concern trolling at worst. Additionally, the earnest questioner sees only their own question and is unaware that they are falling into a common pattern that the other participants have experienced repeatedly.
Sealioning meshes well with moving the goalposts in order to derail the conversation while giving the appearance of a reasonable inquiry. (e.g. after the commenter provides concrete examples of sexism, the sealion replies with "You still haven't answered my question. Please prove how this incident is sexist.")
- Loose Change is a great example of "just asking questions". Replete with semi-truths and highly questionable leaps of logic, this documentary purports to show that the US government was behind the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
- Glenn Beck is one of the most prolific JAQers. His technique of raising issues without actively accusing anyone was parodied on the Did Glenn Beck Rape and Murder a Young Girl in 1990 website, which Beck tried and failed to shut down in 2009 by filing a dispute over the domain name. Beck's questioning technique is also parodied in the South Park episode "Dances With Smurfs", where Eric Cartman — anchoring his own Beck-style television show — carefully ends a tirade of accusations against class president Wendy Testaburger with the question "Or does she?"
- Equally notorious is Neil Cavuto, who has been known to JAQ off with lines like "Have the Democrats Forgotten the Lessons of 9/11?" or "Is the Liberal Media Helping to Fuel Terror?" Jon Stewart gave a name not to the concept of JAQing off but to what might elsewhere be known as a question mark: the "Cavuto Mark." Stewart subsequently "just asked" if Cavuto's mother was a whore. Not that he meant anything by it. Obviously.
- Joe Rogan has promoted various conspiracy theories (9/11, the moon landing hoax, Roswell) as well as pseudoscience on COVID-19, medicine, and economics, but usually frees himself of responsibility by claiming that he's not an expert and is only JAQing.
- Fox News — as in "Up next, is Obama really a fascist, Nazi, socialist, gay, Muslim, atheist Kenyan?"
- The Ancient Aliens TV series, whose narrator asks at least five times per show "Could it be, as some ancient alien researchers believe...?"
- In a similar vein, the old TV show In Search Of was an early example of this kind of shenanigans.
- Donald Trump is fond of just asking questions. Questions like "who is doing the raping?"
- Gilad Atzmon uses this to dog whistle to Holocaust deniers and other Anti-Semites. "65 years after the liberation of Auschwitz we should reclaim our history and ask why? Why were the Jews hated? Why did European people stand up against their next door neighbours? Why are the Jews hated in the Middle East, surely they had a chance to open a new page in their troubled history? If they genuinely planned to do so, as the early Zionists claimed, why did they fail? Why did America tighten its immigration laws amid the growing danger to European Jews? We should also ask for what purpose do the holocaust denial laws serve? What is the holocaust religion there to conceal?"
- In 2002, Hamas leader Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi said, "People always talk about what the Germans did to the Jews, but the true question is, 'What did the Jews do to the Germans?'"
- In the Rwandan genocide, Simon Bikindi's loudspeaker broadcasts to militia asking "have you killed the Tutsis here?" were held to contribute to a finding of incitement to genocide.
- Many GOP senators framed their support for Trump's false claims of election fraud as this. For example, Josh Hawley saying "Millions of voters concerned about election integrity deserve to be heard".
- Tucker Carlson, most notably during the COVID-19 pandemic to spread doubt about its death toll and vaccine safety and efficacy. Carlson claimed the bodies of civilians in the Ukrainian invasion were killed by the Ukrainian military to make it seem that Russians killed them. Carlson followed with, "I'm just asking these questions. Why can't we ask these questions?"
- Steven Crowder during the run-up to the 2020 election, presenting dubious evidence of election fraud and then saying something like "I have concerns" or "I wouldn't be surprised if that was going on" without ever outright saying it was true.
- Elon Musk is engaging with numerous alt-right conspiracy theorists and transphobia under a disguise of "just asking questions" while claiming to be socialist or "neither left nor right' despite of aligning himself to the alt-right.
- Why do Republicans disproportionately believe health misinformation? by Philip Bump (August 22, 2023 at 1:44 p.m. EDT) The Washington Post.
- "Whose Burden of Proof Is It?", Screw Loose Change
- See the Wikipedia article on Betteridge's law of headlines.
- TechCrunch: Irresponsible journalism, Technovia
- "Can't wait to call them JAQ-offs on Saturday."
- 9/11 Truther Dictionary
- The dangers of JAQing off in public, io9
- "Twitter is broken. Gamergate proves it." - Slate. October 7th, 2014.
- Archived here: "We're not accusing Glenn Beck of raping and murdering a young girl in 1990 - in fact, we think he didn't! But we can't help but wonder, since he has failed to deny these horrible allegations. Why won't he deny that he raped and killed a young girl in 1990?"
- Jon Stewart Explains the 'Cavuto Mark', DeLong
- "Donald Trump Is Just Asking The Question: How The GOP Presidential Candidate Spreads His Conspiracy Theories", May 5, 2016.
- CNN, "Trump defends inflammatory comments, asks 'Who is doing the raping?'", July 2, 2015.
- "Truth, History and Integrity by Gilad Atzmon"
- Goldberg, Jeffrey (4 August 2014). "What Would Hamas Do If It Could Do Whatever It Wanted?". The Atlantic. Retrieved 9 May 2020.
- Gordon, Gregory S. (2017). Atrocity Speech Law: Foundation, Fragmentation, Fruition. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-061270-2.
- Cameron Peters, A GOP plan to challenge election results is splintering the Republican conference, Vox 3 Jan. 2021
- Blake, Aaron (March 16, 2021). "The dangerous game Tucker Carlson is playing on vaccines". The Washington Post. Retrieved May 3, 2021.
- WalshFreedom, Twitter, 4 April 2022.
- Ghaffary, Shirin (20 May 2023). "Elon Musk won’t stop tweeting his way into trouble". "He’s been described as “flirting” with these theories, oftentimes replying to a conspiracy theory tweet rather than directly tweeting it himself. He’s often taken a “just asking questions” approach, especially on subjects where there’s an information void."
- Fisher, Anthony L. (20 May 2023). "Elon Musk, Joe Rogan, and the Apocalyptic ‘Centrists’".
- Riedel, Samantha (14 April 2023). "Elon Musk Suggests Doctors Who Treat Trans Youth Should “Go to Prison for Life”". "Elon Musk finally ripped off the last vestiges of his “just asking questions about trans people” mask, following several accounts known for expressing anti-trans sentiments and publicly voicing his support for transphobic extremism himself."
- Dodds, Io (24 May 2023). "From self-proclaimed ‘socialist’ to Team Trump and DeSantis: Elon Musk’s curious politics revealed".