The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Enter the Concern Troll

This cat seems concerned.
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The Internet exploded late Sunday night and Monday over a piece that appeared in the New York Times (following another in the Guardian, since removed because it failed to meet its journalistic standards) expressing elaborate concern that Lisa Adams, a woman with metastatic cancer and an active Twitter account, Wasn’t Doing It Right. By the mere fact of having written poems and tweets (or, in the writer’s choice of words, not written but “pecked”) and made use of the Caring Canines volunteer dog program, the piece implied, Adams was doing something Deeply Suspect. People, the writer went on to suggest, might prefer it if she “battled” less (although Adams has written before about her distaste for military metaphors for cancer). He, for one, felt that her experience put his father-in-law’s struggle with the disease in an unduly critical light.

Why this struck anyone as a good idea is beyond me. “You know who needs a good talking-to from me so they’ll straighten up and fly right? Cancer patients!” is a thought that has, quite frankly, never crossed my mind. But there it is.

The piece has prompted numerous responses — this, by Zeynep Tufekci, is excellent —  to which I have little to add other than a hearty assent.

But I think it touches on a larger trend in opinionating.

Enter The Concern Troll.

There are two ways of disagreeing with someone. One is to disagree openly. The other is to say, “I support you, but you’re doing it wrong.”

The second is insidious.

The second is condescending, insincere, manipulative. It even says so in the Urban Dictionary definition.

The darkest moment is always just after the concern trolls start pouring in.

“I’m with you,” the concern troll says. “But surely you must see how this looks to people. Not me, of course. But other people. They might think horrible things of you. People might think you were self-centered, fat, slow, rude. Not me, of course. I’m with you. I have your best interests at heart. That’s why I want to warn you. I, you see, know how this ought to be done.”

There is some Faceless Someone out there who is absolutely merciless. That Faceless Someone is saying or might say Terrible, Awful Things.

The concern troll does not agree, of course. But the concern troll wants to make sure you know.

Who might say these things, you ask?

Well, you know. People.

For example, a concern troll wonders if it’s really possible for a man of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s girth to be elected. The writer himself would, of course, vote for a man of any girth. It is the other people that he is worried about.

Of course I support Christie, the concern troll says. But “I’m worried about this man dying in office.”

One of the characteristics of concern trolls is that they seldom take the time to check with their sources to see if their concerns have any grounding in fact. Christie answered this particular one by noting, “I find it fascinating that a doctor in Arizona who has never met me, never examined me, never reviewed my medical history or records, knows nothing about my family history, could make a diagnosis from 2,400 miles away.” But this is one of the powers of the concern troll. He can go months and miles without any factual information whatsoever, like a fact-camel.

Take an example from the Times piece:

She responds defiantly to any suggestion that the end is approaching.

“I am not on my deathbed,” she told me in an email from the hospital. “Periods of cancer progression and stability are part of the natural course of this disease. I will be tweeting about my life and diagnosis for some time to come,” she predicted, and I hope she’s right. In any case, I cannot imagine Lisa Adams reaching a point where resistance gives way to acceptance. That is entirely her choice, and deserving of our respect. But her decision to live her cancer onstage invites us to think about it, debate it, learn from it.

Us, you see. Not me. Certainly not. I hope she’s right. I think she is deserving of our respect. But some people might want to debate her choices. I don’t suggest this debate, of course. It’s her decision that “invites us.”

What a lovely passive construction. Concern trolls thrive on passive constructions the way vultures thrive on carcasses.

One. Someone. “Did you know that someone out there left a steaming bag of dung smoldering on a faraway doorstep?” the concern troll says. “Look. Here it is. Let me shove it in your face. I’m doing this FOR YOUR OWN GOOD, because I know How These Things Look.”

The concern troll takes no responsibility for airing these ghastly opinions.

Even the person quoted at the end of the Times piece displays symptoms of being a concern troll:

“I’m the last person to second-guess what she did,” [associate dean of the Stanford University school of medicine Steven] Goodman told me, after perusing Adams’s blog. “I’m sure it has brought meaning, a deserved sense of accomplishment. But it shouldn’t be unduly praised.”


The conversational equivalent of the concern troll is the person who says, “You look tired,” in a sympathetic, understanding-oozing tone when you have just arrived at a morning meeting. “Great!” you think in response. “What am I supposed to do about it? Would you like me to take a nap on you? How do I un-tire myself to meet your specifications?”

If I wanted to concern-troll an opinion writer I might say:

Look, sir. I am with you. I understand how hard it must be for you to have to peck out a column about people whose lives you have taken no time to get correct facts about. I get it. I’m with you. But other people might think it was cruel, lazy, and just – a lousy thing to do, to be perfectly frank.

Not me, of course. Other people.