On concern trolling

By skepticlawyer

A fair few times in the last month, both Legal Eagle and I have been accused of ‘concern trolling’. LE has copped it more than me, but since my post on ‘local food’, I’ve been written off as a ‘libertarian concern troll’.

I’d always had a vague notion that it concerned hiding one’s real political views on an issue under a patina of faux concern. People who did it, apparently, would register on websites devoted to a particular cause and then set about sowing dissension. Here’s the version on offer at ‘Wise Geek’:

Artful concern trolling involves developing a believable persona as a supporter of a cause who has legitimate concerns. In an example of concern trolling, a group of people might be having a political discussion on a website about a candidate they support. The concern troll would log on and say “I’m concerned that this candidate might not be strong enough to beat the opposition,” or “I’m worried that the candidate’s history in the legislature might be a problem in the election.”

Once a concern troll has sowed dissent or discord, often he or she can sit back and let the other commenters do the rest of the work. When a concern troll has done the job correctly, the discussion will split, factions will emerge, and support for the cause will have eroded. Concern trolling can also be highly distracting, as people band together to oppose the concern troll, rather than discussing serious issues, including valid concerns which should be addressed.

Depending on the context, a concern troll may use a sockpuppet, a false account which conceals his or her real identity. In some particularly infamous cases, members of political campaigns have trolled the opposition using sockpuppet accounts with the goal of undermining grassroots support. When these cases are exposed, it can be quite embarrassing, as trolling is generally viewed as an underhanded and often questionable tactic.

Many people think that the best thing to do with Internet trolls is to ignore them. By refusing to give them anything to feed on, users can continue their discussion and stay focused on the issues they want to talk about. However, it can be tricky to distinguish a concern troll from a devil’s advocate or someone who genuinely supports the cause, but does have worries. Tip-offs that someone is a concern troll include a recent registration date, for sites that require registration to post, along with minimal personal details in a user account. Concern trolling also tends to come from people with no commenting or posting history, so if a brand-new user shows up and starts raising doubts, it may be a concern troll.

The caveats in the last paragraph were what set me off. You see, I suspect that (absent the recent registration and proper posting history) much of what is labelled as ‘concern trolling’ is legitimate commentary. It’s just that people on the receiving end of that commentary don’t want to deal with it. Regular commenter Nick Ferrett made this comment on LE’s climate change thread:

One term which I’d never heard until some spankers at LP started raining shit down on LE was “concern troll”. I gather it refers to someone who falsely asserts concern for a class of people as a justification for an argument. Is that right?

If so, why does the mere fact that the concern is false mean that the argument is wrong? The proposition that poverty-stricken people will be most affected by particular responses to climate change isn’t made more or less true by whether I (or anyone else) give a shit about their welfare. The point is either true or it is not.

It’s not as if the proposition can be dismissed out of hand. The market mechanism which (perplexingly to me) has been championed by the left is all about reducing consumption by making consumption more expensive. I don’t need to connect the rest of the dots do I?

I accept that there are competing considerations such as the prospect that regions largely populated by poor people are at the greatest risk of significant detriment through climate change, but that’s a valid competing argument. Simply dismissing an argument because you doubt that the person is genuine about their concern is hardly the response of a rational person.

There’s another aspect that Nick didn’t raise in his comment, and it’s this: absent a dodgy online history, accusing someone of being a concern troll involves an attempt to enter that person’s innermost thoughts, along with a claim (by various means, probably up to and including psychic powers) to know their motives.

I’m a lawyer. Motives I know a bit about. And if you claim to know someone else’s motives, then you must be some sort of psychological genius, or — alternatively — a judge about to sum up to the jury. The likelihood of you being any one of these is negligible or nil, so it may be wise to put the claim away.

In other words, (1) the concerns raised may be valid and (2) in the absence of an irregular posting history, an accusation of ‘concern trolling’ is simply a refusal to engage with what is often a superior argument based on imputed knowledge of the other party’s motives.

I’ll leave LE to put her own perspective based on her politics, and just make my point, which is this: libertarians were trying to do something about this offence against free markets long before socialism was even a twinkle in Uncle Karl’s eye. We also had a large part to play in getting rid of this institution as well. And unlike the various forms of egalitarianism tried at various times since, we haven’t been responsible for the deaths of millions, either.

Oh yeah, and our fight against the Corn Laws and much of our fight against slavery? That was based on a belief in free trade. David Ricardo was an MP at the time, a Quaker abolitionist and economist in the best laissez-faire liberal tradition. And when people wanted to line up free traders and abolitionists, they said stuff like this:

Between our Black West Indies and our White Ireland, between these two extremes of lazy refusal to work, and of famishing inability to find any work, what a world have we made of it, with our fierce Mammon-worships, and our benevolent philanderings, and idle godless nonsenses of one kind and another! Supply-and-demand, Leave-it-alone, Voluntary Principle, Time will mend it: — till British industrial existence seems fast becoming one huge poison-swamp of reeking pestilence physical and moral; a hideous living Golgotha of souls and bodies buried alive.

That’s from Thomas Carlyle, by the way, who hated abolitionists as he hated those who repealed the Corn Laws. He was an extreme localist, who rather fancied the Medieval — or at least serf-based — way of doing things.

When libertarians decry ‘local food’ and other forms of environmental protectionism on the basis that it will harm (or starve) the poor, we aren’t doing it to keep ourselves entertained. We’re doing it because we’ve been making the same arguments about food prices for several hundred years, and for the same reasons. And you know what? We haven’t been wrong, yet. Many of our opponents have been, however, repeatedly and murderously so.

Next time you throw out the phrase ‘concern troll’, it might be a good idea to do a little research. Oh yeah, and make sure that — genuine or not — your opponent is actually in the wrong. Because if he isn’t, then you just look really stupid.

35 Comments

  1. murray
    Posted September 29, 2010 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    I agree, the phrase seems to be used to smugly dismiss someone without having to deal with the content of their argument. I think what Nick Ferrett wrote was spot on.

  2. TerjeP
    Posted September 29, 2010 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    Isn’t it just a version of “if you’re not with us you’re against us”?

  3. TerjeP
    Posted September 29, 2010 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    The market mechanism which (perplexingly to me) has been championed by the left is all about reducing consumption by making consumption more expensive.

    Why don’t they pursue lower wages instead?

  4. Jacques Chester
    Posted September 29, 2010 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    On such occasions it is customary to say “YHBT. YHL. HAND.”

    Perhaps we should attach that to every post about Grogs Gamut.

  5. Posted September 29, 2010 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    Yeah Jacques, I wanted to say something about that, because (as you’ll have noticed) not only did all your blogs get hat-tipped in The Australian, but so did I (in my literary capacity). Thing is, Sinclair Davidson at Catallaxy and Kim at LP said everything I wanted to say, and I had nothing useful to add. I do think that Grog acted very graciously, all things considered.

  6. Posted September 29, 2010 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    Regarding Nick Ferrett’s quoted comment:

    If so, why does the mere fact that the concern is false mean that the argument is wrong? … The point is either true or it is not.

    Not if opinions are being used as status markers.

  7. Jacques Chester
    Posted September 29, 2010 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    Despite the considerable esteem one has enjoyed as benevolent tyrant over a number of well-regarded blogs, one has yet to find an attractive woman in a bar or other social who is suitably impressed.

  8. Henry2
    Posted September 29, 2010 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    Gday all,

    Concern trolling also tends to come from people with no commenting or posting history, so if a brand-new user shows up and starts raising doubts, it may be a concern troll.

    This description actually fits me, but please let me assure you that I am just a new reader of your blog and am enjoying the cut and thrust. As I said before, I would have loved to have taken part in the ‘thread of doom’ but came to the site too late.

    Regards,

    Frank

  9. Posted September 29, 2010 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    Henry2: Umm, I hope I haven’t given anyone the wrong idea. We’re very open to new commenters (although perhaps we should institute periodic ‘de-lurking’ days, like the Hoydens do. Thoughts?)

    I don’t think we’ve ever had a concern troll here, which is why Nick (and me, admittedly) had to look it up and get information from techies elsewhere.

  10. Nick Ferrett
    Posted September 29, 2010 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    Every time I hear the term I think of some little monster chasing the three billy goats gruff.

    Oh, and Lorenzo @7, could you elaborate? Not sure what you mean.

  11. desipis
    Posted September 29, 2010 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    I think use of the term ‘concern troll’ generally indicates a typical tribal approach to politics. The person using the term is focused on the success of their tribe, or their own power within their tribe at the expense of a discussion in search of truth.

    At least it’s slightly less juvenile than the bingo cards that are done up as some sort of apparent rebuttal to arguments.

  12. Posted September 29, 2010 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this. I have stopped commenting at one local feminist blog (after being a regular there) because I was accused of ‘concern trolling’ by complete strangers, seemingly because I was too old to understand what they were talking about. Or maybe not disabled enough. Or, just maybe, because I resist being defined into neat categories. I felt ridiculed for trying to talk about my experience as a carer for my late partner. I think that desipis and Lorenzo have hit the nail on the head, and I don’t play those games.

  13. Posted September 29, 2010 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    A concern troll sounds to me a fine thing to be.

    The strategy is acceptable even if that’s what you really are. All you’re really doing is by-passing ideological discrimination by pretending to be on side. And all you’re doing, if you manage to succeed, is undermining the convictions that hold a group of people to a doctrine.

    And if you can manage to do that by youself what good’s the doctrine? Who do so many people want to go moo?

  14. Posted September 29, 2010 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    That’s ‘why’. Sorry.

  15. desipis
    Posted September 29, 2010 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    I wonder how much it comes down to perspective on the purpose of a particular blog / discussion. Blogs such as this one have (or at least appear to have) a goal of fostering open and respectful discussion around a particular topic. As such the explicit policies and general expected behaviour will be frame around achieving that goal.

    Other blogs may not share these goals. They may be focused on a building a community around people that share something in common. Or they may be around political activism where a particular aim is assumed to be virtuous and the discussion is more about how to achieve that aim than whether the aim is valid in the first place.

    Where I think the most problems come from is when a blog tries to merge two or more aims into one. This generates conflict when comments progress one aim at the expense of another. Feminist blogs are an example of where I see this a lot: they try to be simultaneously a support group for women, an organisation tool for feminist political activism, a place for discussion about gender issues and a place simply for women to socialise online. The openness of discussion is frequently the aim that is sacrificed to maintain the others (that idea is offensive/upsetting, discussing that distracts us from taking action, we put up with that everywhere else we don’t want to deal with it here, etc).

  16. mel
    Posted September 29, 2010 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    I think :concern trolling” is a concept that originated with feminists. If you go to Hoyden About Town’s blog you’ll see this on the comments policy page:

    “Trolling and concern trolling are unacceptable. Concern trolls come across as insincere, manipulative, and condescending.”

    A link defines concern trolling thusly:

    ” A concern troll is “a person who posts on a site or blog pretending to be in sympathy with their overall views or politics, who posts mainly to express concern for policies, comments, attitudes of others on the site”. Concern trolls come across as insincere, manipulative, and condescending.
    * Examples of concern trolling might include, “I love the ideas, but you’re making other feminists look bad.” “You have to be more polite, or other you’ll never make any converts”. “Do you think your could modify your tone?””

    If you type “concern troll” and feminist in your search engine, you’ll find dozens of feminist sites have written tens of thousands of words on the subject of concern trolling.

    These ladies have some serious chips on their shoulders. God bless ’em.

  17. mel
    Posted September 29, 2010 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Ginger Boy Adrien makes sense for a change:

    “The strategy is acceptable even if that’s what you really are. All you’re really doing is by-passing ideological discrimination by pretending to be on side. And all you’re doing, if you manage to succeed, is undermining the convictions that hold a group of people to a doctrine. ”

    I sometimes play devil’s advocate, especially if I’m not sure what I really think about an issue. It should never be assumed that I mean something just because I say it. Why do I do it? I do it because the replies I get often help me formulate a more informed opinion.

    I think I’ve learnt quite a while wearing my horny cap.

  18. kvd
    Posted September 29, 2010 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Well, like Henry2, I suppose I fit the concern troll parameters as far as this blog goes. But in my defence I would note that I have been commenting for some years now on another blog which LE seems to regularly visit, and it was her honest and open comments about a subject which interested me (Opus Prime and ANZ) – complete with the refreshing confidence to state that she didn’t know the answer to some particular point – which started me reading this blog, and that was yonks ago.

    This particular post, like most here, is well written and makes a point (without pointscoring) and I appreciate that. The few subjects in which I consider myself qualified to add discussion points to, I would like to do so – but politely I hope. The only other time I tend to comment – here or elsewhere – is in rebuttal of people obviously speaking outside their area of expertise, to the detriment of the information flow from the people who actually do have some knowledge. For instance, Mr Merkel on “that thread” where he accused a PhD candidate of “intellectual laziness”. Quite breathtaking really.

    Anyway, I appreciate this blog, and I hope not to ever be thought of as trolling on any particular subject, and my email address is my name.

    (And off-topic, I’d just like to state that I find the concept of GManylivingthing, then eating it, quite disgusting. But totally unscientific, and without any foundation, I accept)

  19. mel
    Posted September 29, 2010 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    Oh crap- that should be:

    I think I’ve learnt quite a lot while wearing my horny cap.

  20. Posted September 29, 2010 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    Thanks everyone for very thoughtful comments; to echo Mel, I’m learning too (posts like this help me do it). I have a marked tendency to the waspish that I have to keep in check. DEM I know worries about her gratuitous sarcasm, and LE is so very, very clever it come across as arrogance (at least to a lot of Australians who aren’t used to clever people just being themselves).

  21. Posted September 29, 2010 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    I do it because the replies I get often help me formulate a more informed opinion.

    Indeed. Answers the how-full-of-shit-are-you question.
    Ginger Boy Adrien makes sense for a change

    🙂

    My apologies. Normal service will resume shortly

  22. TerjeP
    Posted September 29, 2010 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

    LE – Some people seem to have a built in need for being rude each and every day. As if they will turn into pumpkins at midnight if they don’t meet their rude quota for the day. I really don’t understand it and sometimes I struggle to tolerate it.

  23. Posted September 29, 2010 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    Despite the considerable esteem one has enjoyed as benevolent tyrant over a number of well-regarded blogs, one has yet to find an attractive woman in a bar or other social who is suitably impressed.

    I can appreciate that they were going for the big pecs, broadsword and furry underpants image with the “WebMASTER!” title, but I don’t think any of us girls have ever bought it.

  24. Posted September 29, 2010 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]

    As if they will turn into pumpkins at midnight if they don’t meet their rude quota

    Oh Pppththththttt to you Terje! I fart in your general direction. Your father is a hamster and your mother smells of elderberries.

    There, now I’m safe from being a gourdy-gourdy for the next 24 hours. Still, you’d probably prefer my insides orange than red within my green exterior.

  25. Posted September 29, 2010 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] : you are a complete idiot who can’t even close the blockquote properly every time.

  26. Posted September 29, 2010 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

    Dave 😀

  27. ken n
    Posted September 30, 2010 at 5:40 am | Permalink

    Thanks all for clarifying that. “Concern troll” has bothered me for a while. A related term is “passive aggressive” which in some places seems to used about a person who is politely begging to differ.

    The tribal behavior of blog commenters is an interesting subject on its own. Very few blogs encourage or even tolerate nuanced discussion. A common pattern is for regular commenters to jump on an intruder and pound her or him into the ground. Sarcasm, abuse and other verbally violent behavior seems to be very common. Often the blog owner sits back and allows the acolytes to do their work.

    In others there are a few masochists who pop up regularly to have their fortunes read by the regulars. Do you know the fairground game “Whack-a-mole”? It’s terrible to watch. A pity – it would be good to have a discussion sometimes that sharpens and polishes my views. I’d probably even change my mind sometimes if I wasn’t forced to define and defend every word I write.

  28. Jacques Chester
    Posted September 30, 2010 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    I can appreciate that they were going for the big pecs, broadsword and furry underpants image with the “WebMASTER!” title, but I don’t think any of us girls have ever bought it.

    To crush your servers, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their users.

  29. TerjeP
    Posted September 30, 2010 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    If you want the chicks to notice you more then maybe you need to try a new protocol. 😉

  30. Jacques Chester
    Posted September 30, 2010 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    GET /busy

    404: /busy not found

  31. Jacques Chester
    Posted September 30, 2010 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    Actually, this is funnier

    GET /busy
    403: Forbidden

  32. mel
    Posted September 30, 2010 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    “To crush your servers, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their users.”

    Excellent!

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  1. By Skepticlawyer » Journalists are Luddites on October 5, 2010 at 4:18 am

    […] the ongoing fooferaw over Grog’s Gamut’s outing (and Jacques Chester is right, the Australian has trolled the progressive blogosphere with some skill), I’ve detected a […]

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