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What is Concern Trolling?

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  • Last Modified Date: 19 March 2017
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Concern trolling is a form of Internet trolling in which someone enters a discussion with claims that he or she supports the view of the discussion, but has concerns. In fact, the concern troll is opposed to the view of the discussion, and he or she uses concern trolling to sow doubt and dissent in the community of commenters or posters. Although this practice originated on the Internet, it has since spread to the real world as well, with concern trolls popping up in a variety of places from network television to op-ed columns.

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.”

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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.

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anon997705
Post 15

"he or she uses concern trolling to sow doubt and dissent in the community of commenters or posters..."

This is where I take issue with the entire concept of "concern trolling".

Historically, artists, writers, philosophers, social critics — and our best teachers and professors — encouraged us to question prevailing wisdom. And since we, individually and collectively, are the purveyors of what passes for prevailing wisdom, that often means turning a mirror on our own irony, hypocrisy, bigotry, intolerance and assumptions.

To assume the "concern troll" is inherently insincere is a mistake, if only because it relies on having a level of insight into a person that we can't possibly ascribe without the benefit of personally knowing them (or how they arrived

at the conclusions/opinions they express).

The K-12 education system, in general, does not require students to study forensics, sociology/psychology or even, for that matter, mandate coursework in critical thinking skills. In school we learn to read, write and research subject matter that is more often than not "other" focused. As students, we study comparatively few topics that force us to reflect on our own beliefs and values. When someone comes along with the desire to do just that, he/she will defy the mandate to over-simplify an issue by interjecting the "gray areas". It's true: such comments often feel "out of place". But does that mean that such questions or concerns are without merit, period?

The concern troll comes along and acknowledges X, Y or Z and then continues on with a "but" — and that's where he/she breaks rank with the cheeky or superficial treatment that is expected of a subject, and in doing so risks earning the "concern troll" label. The problem with the ease with which this label is now applied is that it does an injustice to those who genuinely wish to express "dissent" (or are genuinely new/ignorant to a particular issue and had no real motive to offend).

The notion of concern trolling potentially characterizes anyone and everyone who first attempts to be polite — to acknowledge others' points of view — as insincere. In addition to disenfranchising those who want to see a discussion go deeper (as opposed to cheekier), the notion of concern trolling may serve to marginalize those who are "on the fence" (he who waffles, rather than merely being undecided, may very well be perceived as an agent of "dissonance" and "disinformation"). This begs the question: What quality of discussion can we have if only those who have A) made up their minds, and B) agree to "preach to the choir" are tolerated? For that matter, what level of "diversity" do we support, if diversity of opinion is met with skepticism if not outright hostility?

Consider Webster's definition of "dialogue": "A discussion between two or more people or groups, especially one directed toward exploration of a particular subject or resolution of a problem.”

There is little if any "exploration" of a given subject if only people who agree with each other are allowed to echo one another in the context of a community discussion/forum. And there is no "dialogue", similarly, if there are not two or more points of view expressed by "two or more people or groups".

To positively ID a concern troll, one must engage in a whole lot of assumption making:

1) Be highly cynical about how sincerely anyone else really cares,

2) Read between the lines to deduce others' true intentions,

3) Judge them as dishonest even if you don't know the person's real name, let alone what life experiences (or qualifications) may have led them to defy expectations for what constitutes a "normal" or "accepted" opinion.

In real life, there are shades of gray. The problem with labeling anyone who talks about gray areas — or who seeks out areas of common ground — as concern trolls, is that it essentially seeks to marginalize non-mainstream opinions on the basis that the other person's motives do not fall into the usual partisan camps. But who decides what the "real" motives are, especially if the dastardly agenda is ascribed to a complete stranger as is typically the case in online discussion forums?

Perhaps a more concrete example would help. Say I am a newsroom editor who, in my off time, posts comments on blogs. Because my day job requires me to emphasize "objectivity" in reporting, this same effort may "color" the way I contribute to a discussion. But should this necessarily lead others to conclude, without knowing anything about my life experiences or professional credentials, to assume my only agenda is to undermine cohesiveness or consensus? Again, what IS a discussion if questioning assumptions or broadening the line of thought is met with the view that such efforts are entirely suspect?

I won't go so far as to claim that CTs are an entirely fake phenomena. The problem is that identifying a CT beyond all shadow of a doubt — if we really give this matter any thought — would require actually knowing the person we have identified as a CT. And frankly, that's knowledge very few of us in an Internet community or discussion are privy to about the people we agree with, let alone the people we brand as CTs!

In conclusion, I personally can't run with the notion that it is okay to typecast people as CTs simply because it's not clear who's side they're really on (or because they try to remain neutral in a world that is overwhelmingly polarized politically and otherwise). Concern trolling is a problematic concept because the label can very well be applied to anyone who takes the position of Devil's advocate (or who genuinely "thinks differently").

In the offline world — the real world — there is great diversity in opinion, thought and life experience (professional and personal). In the absence of actually meeting/knowing the person who is supposedly concern trolling online, it's very, very easy to distrust their opinions (and to even conclude there is some sort of orchestrated conspiracy to spread "disinformation"). But that doesn't mean that those who challenge prevailing wisdom — or merely the political bent on a given website — always have a dastardly agenda? The act of defining a concern troll implies we know more than we typically do about the person who's agenda we seek to typecast. These interpretations of what complete strangers "really mean" are just that — subjective interpretations. There are limits to how often or how reasonably the CT label can be applied. And if we are entirely honest with ourselves, the main benefit of keeping the concern troll label alive and well is that we can use it to ignore all the tough, introspective questions that artists, writers, philosophers, psychologists — and our best teachers, journalists and mentors — would no doubt have us ask.

anon992630
Post 13

Since I have often voiced my honest opinion that I want Sanders as President, but also am aware of the need to get actual control

of the U.S. Supreme Court, so for that reason alone we have to get a Democrat in office, as unpalatable as it may be!

The list of even one vote on the Court will be the end for us. You think Citizens United is bad, my lord what will be facing!

Oh, and I have been called a troll for thinking maybe a plan B might might be necessary!

So am I a "concern Troll", because I volunteer and donate to Senator Sanders!

anon970107
Post 12

Labeling someone with genuine concerns as a troll happens more often than not now. All this tactic has done is silence dissent and polarize opinions even more when a person who kind of supports one thing but has a concern gets ignored or ridiculed and becomes alienated from that group and ends up taking the polar opposite position since they think their original position's side is hostile.

anon289252
Post 7

Thanks for that definition; it has become all too obvious that these trolls are entering discussions only to subvert open discussion. Awareness is definitely the key!

Acracadabra
Post 4

Don't you think that concern trolling can happen in non Internet situations too? I know a few people who will make this kind of comment, mostly they are trying to cause trouble amongst a community or friends.

The tell tale sign of this for me is when they can't move on from their 'concerns', no matter how many opinions or ideas are offered to them.

Bakersdozen
Post 3

@angelBraids - I hear you! I was aware of the trolls out there but honestly thought they were just sad people who lacked social skills! It seems so much worse that a concern troll is planning to sabotage a worthy cause or discussion.

Sometimes it's good to have someone throw a controversial comment or opinion out there of course. It would be unrealistic to expect everyone to have the same perspectives on things.

angelBraids
Post 2

This is a great definition of a concern troll, and I hope more people become aware of this nuisance on public forums. I've seen this happen a few times on sites I like to visit, it's annoying and sometimes quite upsetting.

anon88775
Post 1

I'm concerned that this definition of concern trolling may undermine the cause. --Eric B.

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