Home PublicationsCommentary Concern Trolling Is Taking Over Tech Policy

Concern Trolling Is Taking Over Tech Policy

by Daniel Castro
Road sign showing troll crossing

Technology critics often like to point out that they are big supporter of technology—at least in theory. They love technological innovation, they insist, but they do have a few concerns, such as about its impact on privacy, jobs, bias, or children. But unlike self-professed Luddites who criticize digital innovations from an honest position of opposition to technology, these critics sow doubts about technology while disingenuously claiming to support it. In short, they are concern trolls.

Concern trolls are people who act like they support a particular belief, but really work to oppose it. They pretend to hold the opposing view so that their criticism, often masked as “concerns,” carries more weight. As explained by Rachel Barney, a professor of classics and philosophy at the University of Toronto, “in general the troll says what is false but sounds like the truth—or rather he does not quite say it, but rather something very close to it which is true, or partly true, or best of all merely asks a simple question about the evidence…” By making superficially reasonably comments and asking seemingly innocent questions, concern trolls cast doubt on the views they ostensibly support while have deniability about their true motives.

Consider the official readout from the White House listening session last week on technology platforms. After first briefly describing how digital platforms “help keep us connected, create a vibrant marketplace of ideas, and open up new opportunities for bringing products and services to market,” the participants turned their attention to “concerns in six key areas: competition; privacy; youth mental health; misinformation and disinformation; illegal and abusive conduct, including sexual exploitation; and algorithmic discrimination and lack of transparency.” Of course, none of those participants identifies as anti-technology, just pro-technology people with a few concerns.

Or consider how the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has embraced concern trolling in its recent advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) on data practices. In announcing the ANPR, FTC Chair Lina Khan portrays herself as someone on the side of technological advancement, describing the digital economy as having “yielded striking advancements and dazzling conveniences,” yet then goes on to list her concerns about “dark patterns,” “data abuses,” and the “surveillance economy”—three terms crafted specifically to paint technology as dangerous and alarming.

And concern trolls ask a lot of questions. There is nothing wrong with asking a few questions, they will argue, because if the technology has done nothing wrong, it has nothing to hide. The FTC’s ANPR on commercial surveillance offers a master class on concern trolling. Consider questions like:

  • “Which practices do companies use to surveil consumers?”
  • “[A]re children and teenagers more likely than adults to be manipulated by practices designed to encourage the sharing of personal information?”
  • “What types of commercial surveillance practices involving children and teens’ data are most concerning?”
  • “Do techniques that manipulate consumers into prolonging online activity (e.g., video autoplay, infinite or endless scroll, quantified public popularity) facilitate commercial surveillance of children and teenagers?”

In the past, regulatory agencies mostly kept official rulemaking proceedings focused on objective fact-finding. But those days seems to be over with the FTC now asking such blatantly biased and loaded questions designed purely to further a preexisting agenda.

Concern trolling can be a successful tactic because it stalls serious discussions from moving past the questions and concerns of the trolls. Concern trolls can repeatedly raise the same questions, ignoring valid answers to make it seem like their concerns are justified. Or they raise concerns about a small problem but act as if it is more significant than it really is. In tech policy, such concern trolling has become routine. When discussing social media, concern trolls quickly raise concerns about misinformation. When discussing the Internet, they ask about privacy. When discussing artificial intelligence, they always bring up bias and jobs. But call them anti-technology and they will deny it.

And it is not that these issues are not important, but that does not mean they have to be the focus of every policy discussion nor should those raising these issues disguise their true motives. As Adam Thierer noted nearly a decade ago, many tech critics frame their comments as reasonable attempts to “have a conversation” about their concerns about a new technology. He writes:

“But, after conjuring up a long parade of horribles and suggesting ‘we need to have a conversation’ about new technologies, authors of such essays almost never finish their thought. There’s no conclusion or clear alternative offered. I suppose that in some cases it is because there aren’t any easy answers. Other times, however, I get the feeling that they have an answer in mind — comprehensive regulation of new technologies in question — but that they don’t want to come out and say it because they think they’ll sound like Luddites.”

How should technology supporters deal with concern trolls in tech policy? Those who respond to concern trolls risk being labeled too rude or harsh, forcing them to defend the tone of their own response rather than the substance of the troll’s critique. And even if nobody tone polices them, by eliciting a response to their concerns, concern trolls have effectively achieved their goal by redirecting the conversation. These risks are in part why the conventional wisdom online is to “not feed the trolls”—meaning to ignore them when they pop up on social media, email lists, and other forums.

Therefore, the best option in tech policy is likely a middle ground—do not engage with the concern trolls directly, but do not hesitate to call out their behavior. To be effective, technology supporters need to ensure they and others are familiar with the tactics of concern trolling so that when it occurs, they can identify it and call it out, thereby elevating tech policy discussions beyond the concerns of the trolls.

Image credit: Mark König

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