Concern trolling in the online vaccine wars

Anybody who has spent time on internet message boards, whatever their focus, has encountered a species widely known as the concern troll. Discussion threads on Twitter are also loaded with them, although the structure of Twitter makes the threads more difficult to follow. Twitter also is more likely just to have a back-and-forth of hurled invectives in capital letters because the 140 character limit per tweet lends itself to this technique.

A concern troll is someone who presents himself/herself (itself?) as genuinely interested in other points of view but has “concerns” about it. This posture is often presented as “just asking questions.” The troll is simply interested in learning, it says. Yet if you naively answer all the troll’s questions, it just leads to more questions. The troll never asks for further information, receives it, thanks the person who offers it, and proceeds on. The troll always has a “yes, but . . . ” comeback. Concern trolls are famous for the trick of moving the goalposts. You answer one question adequately, but this just leads to more questions from the troll. When you run out of patience with this dance the troll declares victory, often by pointing out how unreasonable you are — not thoughtful like the troll.

I dabble now and then in the interminable online vaccine debates, if debate is really the correct word. Some anti-vaccine combatants patrol the internet with their shared bullet points and links to discredited or just plain wrong publications. They have a standard toolkit of images which they believe are conclusive winners in any flame war. They also have a standard list of insults: paid shill (for Pharma in general, vaccine makers in particular), liar, fake doctor, and the like. They generally insist all information from all reputable sources that support vaccine science is false (or paid for by Pharma) . . . because they support vaccines. Yes, it’s circular. Many insist there is a vast conspiracy afoot to foist vaccines on a helpless public.

Those are the strident ones. I find the concern trolls more interesting. They generally come across as reasonable, at least initially. They have concerns about vaccines, they are just asking questions. They portray themselves similar to that unicorn of political reporters — the mythical undecided voter. But the more you answer their questions, the more they have. They keep bringing up this, and that, and then another thing, and another. The goalposts recede toward the far horizon.

Vaccine trolls claim they would support vaccines, but only if the safety and efficacy meet their exacting demands, standards which are not applied to anything else in medicine. If they applied similar “concerns” to daily life they would never get in a car, get on an airplane, or eat in a restaurant. Since their demands are impossible to meet, they regretfully, with sadness, must reject the whole of vaccine science and epidemiology. For myself, I think vaccine concern trolls act the way they do because they think of themselves as reasonable, thoughtful persons. But really they just are against all vaccines. Concern trolling allows them to manage their cognitive dissonance.


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