Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave a classic example of a negative pregnant in his Congressional testimony. He was asked about a Facebook executive trying to hire Obama digital campaign workers after the 2012 election. The exec told the Obama people that they saw that they were misusing private information, but that they did not stop them because Facebook was “on Obama’s side.”
Zuckerberg rushed to fire back an obviously rehearsed answer. He said Obama developers did not get any more access to privacy data than anyone else, or words to that effect. I could not find the exact quote on line.
The questioner did not ask anything about developers. And I am sure the questioner did not give a damn about developers.
Answered a narrower question than was asked
What Zuckerberg did—was coached to do by a lawyer I’ll bet—was narrow the question to a different one that he could answer in the negative to avoid answering the question about whether Facebook lets fellow liberals break the privacy rules.
This is called a number of things:
• word parsing
• negative pregnant
• non-denial denial
Parsing means to examine or analyze words minutely. The classic was Bill Clinton saying in a deposition, “It depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is.”
Negative pregnant means the witness seems to be answering the question in the negative, but his answer is pregnant with the information that the correct answer to the actual question is yes or positive. The witness is eager to say no, but has to answer a different question, not the one that was asked, in order to answer in the negative.
“A negative pregnant (sometimes called a pregnant denial) refers to a denial which implies its affirmative opposite by seeming to deny only a qualification of the allegation and not the allegation itself.”
The classic example used in lwa schools is, “Did you kill Jones?” which is answered by, “I did not shoot Jones.” A response to that answer that illustrates what the witness is trying to do would be, “I did not ask if you shot him! I asked if you killed him by any means. Answer my question!”
“Non-denial denial” is a phrase that was coined by Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee during the Watergate investigation. It means the witness gives an emphatically negative answer, but rewords the question during the answer to that the denial applies only to a narrower version of the question.
“A non-denial denial is a statement that, at first hearing, seems a direct, clearcut and unambiguous denial of some alleged accusation, but on carefully parsing turns out not to be a denial at all, and is thus not explicitly untruthful if the allegation is in fact correct.“
Pounce on this crap
Shame on the Congress person who asked this question, then let Zuckerberg get away with this parsing. He should have pounced on it. I am trying to train my readers to do exactly that whenever someone tries to pull that stunt.
What Zuckerberg did was to plead guilty to letting Obama people violate the privacy rules because Facebook was “on their side.” But he avoided perjury by parsing his answer—pretending the question was about “developers”—rather than answering the question that was actually asked.
There is no reason why the average American cannot learn about this deception technique. Some reporters, to their credit, now pounce on parsing whenever they hear it.
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