Politics – Internet Culture – Am I A "Concern Troll"? – 27 July 2012


I had never heard of this phrase “concern troll” before tonight, when its use on Twitter brought it to my attention. The phrase wasn’t directed at me – it was a general posting by someone in the Twitterverse whom I do not know and have never conversed with. But nevertheless, I think I could be one of these “concern trolls”.

Okay, I did mean that as a joke, but I’m certain there are some who believe me to be an internet troll and others who would specifically suggest I’m this variant of troll.

Wikipedia provides this as the definition of an internet troll generally: “In Internet slang, a troll is someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.” My posts can inflame, may be taken as extraneous or off-topic by people who are on here only to post pictures of kittens or videos of rock stars, may provoke emotional responses, and may disrupt things. They may also be noted calmly, or ignored entirely. It really depends on the reader. Nevertheless, I mean them to be constructive rather than annoying – toward that goal, unlike the average troll, I try to base what I say on logic and evidence wherever I can.

But this term “concern troll” describes a specific variant within trolldom, and the Wikipedia article offers several classificatory touchstones for defining whether one meets the description of this kind of troll.

The first part of the definition is “A concern troll is a false flag pseudonym created by a user whose actual point of view is opposed to the one that the user claims to hold.” This part of the definition _never_ applies to me, though I am often accused of this, most often by those on the left side of the political spectrum with whom I disagree about substantive matters. The basic idea here is that I couldn’t possibly be committed to freedom, justice, daylight, liberation, equality, the environment, fuzzy bunnies, etc., if I disagree with what they are saying on any given point…so I must be a John Bircher in drag trying to disguise my evil plots by talking a good game about social justice.

Saul Alinsky, the great theorist of community organising, might well not have liked me. He may have thrown me in with a category of people he called Do-Nothings: “These Do-Nothings profess a commitment to social change for ideals of justice, equality, and opportunity, and then abstain from and discourage all effective action for change. They are known by their brand, ‘I agree with your ends but not your means.'” Though I think I have participated in and encouraged certain effective actions for change, I will most certainly admit that “I agree with your ends but not your means” is something I say all the time. Of course, that is because I so often find particular means for solving a given problem atrocious and counter-productive. But perhaps I should turn everything on that word “effective”, because that’s what really matters. “By any means necessary”? Sounds delightfully and romantically radical. But I’m more impressed by the phrase “by any means effective”. And that means actually thinking about what constitutes effectiveness before rushing off to “do something”.

The second part of the definition is having a “goal is to sow fear, uncertainty and doubt within the group”. I may be guilty of this one, as there are many things I hear people talk about fearlessly, certainly and with no doubt, which merit the opposite.

Right now, I would say that this describes well what I am actively trying to do when people talk about there being “no democracy” in the US or Canada. I absolutely want to sow fear, uncertainty and doubt about the proposition that not voting in elections is smart. I want people to consider what will happen if they actually stay home on Election Day. But I don’t see that as an attack on popular movements in our society, I see that as an attempt to prevent those popular movements from making a tragic mistake.

The third part of the definition is “offering a poisoned apple in the form of advice to political opponents that, if taken, would harm the recipient”. The idea of “poisoned” here is that the advice is intentionally bad, rather than unintentionally so. It is certainly possible that I may have given bad advice in the past. I think I’m pretty bright and usually pretty well-reasoned in my arguments, but – shocking as this may be to the lot of you, I’m sure – I might not always be right. Nevertheless, I’d stack my track record for being right on political matters up with the best of them.

Where I have been wrong, it’s usually been in the direction of being trusting to those who don’t deserve it. I advocated voting for Bill Clinton in 1992, despite my complete lack of being impressed by him, because he wasn’t George H. W. Bush. In retrospect, that was a mistake, in my view, because his eight years represented a consolidation of Reagan/Bush ideology – it made it look like Reaganism was bipartisan, because Bill Clinton bought into deregulation and the dismantling of the welfare state as much as any Republican. Likewise, I refrained from criticising George W. Bush during the Iraq War, hoping he might steer a moderate course, because I hoped the war might be about removing a genocidaire from power and committing to a “Marshall Plan for the Middle East” to keep Iraq free of future extremism. Bush did at least remove the genocidaire, but then spent time, money and resources on getting reconstruction contracts for his cronies rather than implementing anything that looked like the Marshall Plan.

In both cases, I felt hosed, and thus anyone who took my advice about what to do would have every right to feel hosed by me. But it was far from intentional. I sized up the situation wrong at first. It happens.

The thing about being wrong, though, is that decent people try and figure out what they would do differently. I have publicly wrestled with why I think Obama deserves credit as a pragmatist even though I have now rejected Clinton as a triangulator. I have publicly wrestled with how we should be judging war efforts in Afghanistan, or Libya, given how sensible policy got derailed in Iraq. These are not closed matters for me because I feel I need to better understand things so I will not make errors in judgment this time around.

I note some others do not do this. They present themselves as never having been wrong about anything. Maybe the flip side of being a “concern troll”, though, is never imagining, even for a moment, that one’s own views might create harm. Now we have strident critics of an allegedly spineless Barack Obama who seemingly had no problems with the utterly spineless Bill Clinton. How did people miss that about Clinton? That’s the past, I’m told. We also have people utterly focused on how wrong military policy has been in the US since Iraq. But what about Kosovo, where NATO military power very likely prevented a genocide? And why have none of the apocalyptic Obama-is-Bush-lite claims about intervention in Libya proven even slightly true? The country is finally free of Gaddafi, and has just completed free elections. Never mind that, I’m told, the big issue is drones in Pakistan now.

Anyway, there’s where I stand on the “concern troll” thing. Not really sure if I’ve proven to you all that I’m not one. But if you’ve read this and still think that I am one, I’m not sure I care.

P.S. Though I am no fan of Oliver Cromwell generally, I believe he had a good point when he said “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.” Of course, he could have been concern trolling, so maybe it is I who is mistaken. Oh, wait, there I go again.


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