On: October 20, 2020
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Oscar Fitzpatrick, Caitlin Harzem, Gerry LaBarbera


There was a time when speaking of JK Rowling would primarily include topics regarding children’s literature, or specifically the Harry Potter franchise. In 2020 much of the debate surrounding JK Rowling is not concerned with her children’s publications, rather, her insertion into the “TERF Wars”. It is the purpose of this research to investigate the quantity of tweets produced by JK Rowling that reflect this ideology, and further to analyse the spread of this message via the metric of “favoriting” tweets.

Introducing TERFs and UK TERFism:

What is a TERF? Simply put the initialism describes itself: Transgender Exclusionary Radical Feminist. The phrase represents an individual who – to varying degrees of radicalization – believes that the cause of feminist politics cannot and should not include regard for transgender people, specifically transgender women. According to TERFs this phrase is a slur and use of it is akin to misogyny. In an interview with Transadvocate TigTog (the blogger co-credited with popularizing the term) responded to the question of TERF being an offensive term; “It was not meant to be insulting. It was meant to be a deliberately technically neutral description of an activist grouping.” And went on to expand “We wanted a way to distinguish TERFs from other RadFems with whom we engaged who were trans*-positive/neutral, because we had several years of history of engaging productively/ substantively with non-TERF RadFems, and then suddenly TERF comments/posts seemed to be erupting in RadFem spaces where they thread-jacked dozens of discussions, and there was a great deal of general frustration about that.” (Williams 2014).The logic of a TERF is essentially that sex and gender are not only not socially constructed [some go as far as to disregard the distinction between sex and gender], but they are innate pre-determined biological factors that cannot change. This ideology is then masked by adopting pseudo-feminist language which proports to be defending the rights of “women”. Which is to say the specific category of cis-womanhood that is deemed acceptable – this ideology not only harms transgender people, but is a dangerous gender essentialist rhetoric for all persons.

In the UK TERFism has been at the forefront of feminism for some years with TERF ideology melding into party politics for both conservative and liberal causes. 

“It’s alarming the extent to which, in the U.K., transphobia has taken hold among people who understand themselves to be left-wing — with virulent streaks present in the trade union movement, the center left media, and in the Labour party. Trans people looking to take up positions within their local Labour party groups now have to run the gauntlet of small but vocal factions intent on their removal, a case in point being Lily Madigan, a talented young organizer who happens to be a trans woman and has become a pet target of obsessive TERFs within the party.” (Miller 2018) 

The centering of anti-trans rhetoric has been amplified by various media outlets in the UK, namely in The Times (e.g. 1, 2, 3) and The Guardian (e.g. 1, 2, 3). This transphobic media messaging has been such that the American counterpart to the Guardian published an op-ed denouncing the stances of their British colleagues.

Framing JK Rowling within this environment and her use of Twitter:

Coming from the British environment of transphobia it is not unsurprising that she has adopted this radical pseudo-feminist stance on trans rights. Although her tweets garnered great media attention this year this is not the first time she has tweeted or been associated with transphobic sentiments. These sentiments can be traced back to 2017 on twitter with Rowling sharing an article on Twitter that argues in favor same sex bathrooms that exclude transgender women and then in 2018 where she had a “middle-aged moment” when she liked a tweet with transphobic messaging (Burns 2019). Rowling pen name Robert Galbraith and her Cormoran Strike series have been criticized for their transphobic undertones. Although Rowling denies her pen name was inspired by the scientist who founded gay-conversion shock therapy, her creating a serial killer character who lures his victims in by dressing as a women clearly demonstrates her transphobic fears (Burns 2019). However, despite these moments of transgression, it wasn’t until October 2019, her liberal façade finally cracked when she tweeted in support of Maya Forstater, who was dismissed from her employment after several transphobic comments were posted online by Forstater, which was in breach of her company inclusion policy (BBC 2019). Rowling from this point onward refused to back down and hide from trans activists who criticized her, like she had in the past, and continued to voice her opinions on Twitter with frequency and fervor.

Twitter describes itself as a platform that encourages a “wide variety of voices and perspectives” which is why they allow “strong opinions and controversial views” (Safety on Twitter). Rowling in an essay om her website lists her right to free speech as a reason for speaking out about, the diplomatically put, “Sex and Gender Issues” (Rowling 2020). Rowling’s opinions fall into TERFism although she refuses to accept the label and even says it is a hateful term she is labeled with (Rowling 2020). Her rejection of this categorization is how she is able to continue on Twitter. Her strong and ‘controversial’ belief in woman being a political and biological class that should be protected, is trans exclusionary, despite the fact she says she knows, likes and sympathizes with trans people (Rowling 2020). If she were to adopt TERF she would more explicitly be transphobic however under the guise of concern for women, she is able to continue sharing her harmful TERF opinions. This is unlike the explicit transphobia exhibited by Azealia Banks and Graham Lineham, who’s accounts were both closed by Twitter.

Twitter’s Policies: 

Twitter lists the transgender community as one of its protected categories of minority groups. In their misconduct policy Twitter says they seek to combat “abuse motivated by hatred, prejudice or intolerance, particularly abuse that seeks to silence the voices of those who have been historically marginalized” (Hateful Conduct Policy). While Rowling’s TERF tweets and their volume can be argued as a clear example of prejudice towards this protected community her feminist focus lets her slide by being one of Twitter’s controversial opinions. Twitter also says that they “prohibit targeting individuals and groups with content intended to incite fear or spread fearful stereotypes about a protected category” (Hateful Conduct Policy). Rowling cites her opinions on twitter as truth, in doing so she perpetuates harmful stereotypes about trans people which invalidate their identities and their struggles. From stating that hormones and gender affirming surgery are a new kind of conversion therapy for young gay people, to ‘exposing’ what trans-activists are hiding. Rowling adopted a concern for young confused people who are struggling with their gender-identity, she mongers fear around transitioning and it is evident in her pro-biological sex tweets that this is because she deny that transwomen are women.  

Twitter allows this TERF content to continue as it appears to be under free speech. However, biological sex focused opinions, like Maya Forstater’s was ruled in court as an opinion that is “not worthy of respect in a democratic society” (BBC 2019). Rowling seems to speak on behalf of women who are afraid to share their similar opinions due to a fear of hate and being reprimanded at their workplace or by people in their lives. It is apparent that while Twitter allows this content society does not, without consequences. Society is however not a governing enough force on Twitter to stop those in positions of power, like Rowling, sharing their harmful opinions about a protected community.

From a like which innocuously aligned Rowling with a transphobic narrative Rowling spitefully  embraced her right to exercise free speech and make her voice heard by dogmatically tweeting her controversial beliefs. However, it is clear she is repeatedly targeting a protected community and Twitter is letting her and many others do so. 

Visualising JK Rowling’s Tweets:

The data that our research concerns was acquired via https://www.vicinitas.io/. The tweet data for JK Rowling’s 3,184 most recent tweets was downloaded for our research on October 6th 2020, it was then sorted into categories of tweet topic. Our query when enacting this research has been to create a comprehensible visualization of the amount of tweets, the spread of those tweets, and the message contained in those tweets that relate to TERF ideologies. The resulting datasets were used to develop visualizations representing various tweet-impression scales. Our metric for ‘spread’ of message is defined by both the Favorite and Retweet count. As explored in Bucher and Helmonds’ text, users of Twitter assign meaning to the interactions afforded to them by the platform  (2018, 2). This research uses the affordance of the Favorite as the primary metric of support or agreement with the content of a tweet. This is in opposition to the affordance of retweeting as retweets allow users to repurpose, comment on or embed a tweet in a new context. Therefore the retweet is not a reliable measure of support for a tweet.

In order to consider this data we must discuss the omissions and non-counted items. The tweets counted in this data are the tweets that were available on October 6th 2020. That is to say tweets that have been restricted, deleted, or have since been removed from twitter due to violation of hateful conduct policies are not included in the 3,184. Other factors that should be noted with this data is the space for multi-category tweets, that is to say tweets that concern one or more of the topics of categorization. In this research tweets with multi-category options have been included in single categories based on a review of the users who interacted with said multi-category-tweet, i.e. a tweet which concerns both the Labour Party and the NHS would be categorized as an NHS tweet if the visible responses focus on the NHS more so than the Labour element. This reflects our primary query of spread.

In order to observe concise visual data, the categories of promotional replies and “normal use”  have been created and are omitted from some visualizations – the nature of these tweets is their low spread and reach. These tweets fall into normal categories of use for social media, however are not relevant to our analysis of spread of radicalized TERF ideologies.

December 2019 – UK TERFs create a media storm surrounding a workplace dispute where Maya Forstater’s was terminated for publicly sharing rhetoric which misaligned with the ethos of the Center for Global Development.

From this data roughly 60% of tweets can be disregarded for further visualizations. Low interaction and lack of substance within the Promo Reply and Normal Use categories make these data outliers to be disregarded. Tweets included in these omitted categories include Birthday wishes, interaction with trending hashtags, and single emoji replies with no other content. Topics related to the Harry Potter franchise have been grouped together into one category. 

Platforms & Radicalization:

The idea that technological and digital landscapes influence and evolve human behavior is not a new concept, and there is much to be said about the perils of a popular online community becoming a tool for radicalization. The media ecology discipline illustrates a technology or media artifact within which a culture grows. In other words, it is a symbolic environment where people spend their time, and change in human behavior is facilitated with the addition or evolution of technology and ideas (Postman, 2000). 

When one considers the concept of radicalization on social networks, militant groups and religious sects could be at the forefront of thought, though there are plenty of radical ideologies that seep into vulnerable corners of social networks. Social media sites such as Twitter work in a way that promote communication and friendship assemblage between users in an attempt not only to prolong usage of said network, but also to feed the algorithmically-driven identity of a given user (Bucher 2012). The design of the interface, the algorithm, and the user content play a part in grouping like-minded individuals for a smoother, more relevant, and frankly more interesting experience of a given user. The gears of the radicalization machine are Twitter’s mechanisms of affordance, specifically the way it requests, demands, encourages, discourages, allows, and refuses certain behavior from users (Davis and Chouinard 2016).  

The registration system’s lenient nature of having very little demands allows users to join the conversation without the requirement of a verified identity, giving rise to the opportunities of profiles with mal-intent, and the default profile set-up encouraging users to post publicly allows unrestricted access to topics, trends, and conversations across the platform. Through various policies, Twitter makes it clear that there are protected communities on the platform, and demands that users agree to conduct themselves in a way that does not diminish the online experience of other users. When a person has found their particular niche within a network, the sense of reward will surely be an indication, as posts are liked, shared, commented on, and interacted in ways that denote acceptance, and community. The behavior of a user is then slightly molded, as they discover which of their posts reap the most clout indicators, or the measure of popularity used to show off communicative and popular-opinion-savviness (Rogers 2018, 451). Twitter’s structure and design both feed into this game-like environment where users begin to post only to receive positive feedback amongst their peers. In instances of radicalization in online communities, the key factor is the self-reinforcement of social capital, the “investment in social relations with expected returns” (Lin, 1999, 30). In a group where shared norms, values, and codes are strengthened in an echo-chamber effect, as well as the lack of diversity in thinking, the similarity of players becomes the most vulnerable aspect of a group. When the social capital of a group becomes too high, and the group’s priorities and narrative become violently or aggressively opposed to the cultural and societal status quo in a confrontational manner, they are radicalized (Schmid 2018).

The vast quantity of extremist production on a given narrative exposes clear indication of radicalization methodology (Ferrera et al. 2016, 7). It seems as though for some controversial narratives, high values of quantity and occurrence in content exposure make a difference in whether the material resonates with a user.

In this graph the Y axis represents categories and the X represents the count of tweets within that category

Examining JK Rowling’s Twitter as an Amplifier of Radicalized TERF Rhetoric:

In the above bar chart the spread of relevant tweets within each category may seem to favor non-TERF topics, our concern however is in the rate of interaction within each category. The below circle diagram represents the total included tweets with their size based on the number of favorites each tweet received. Each node is one tweet. 

What is notable here is the rate of impressions per tweet when counting favorites is that TERF identified tweets have a higher impression ratio than any other collected tweet in the dataset. The highest impression recorded for a tweet is 228,392 and the lowest impression is 0.

In the below timeline of included tweet data which is valued by each tweet’s number of favorites. From this chart we can observe the rate of engagement with each tweet within the TERF category over the course of our data collection. Originally the researchers endeavored to display this data in terms of a timeline of a year, however when examining the data we encountered tweets that were originally posted (and then retweeted) previous to the start point of our data collection, these tweets then skewed our timeline visualization and as such we have removed the timeline measurement on the below graph. 

Conclusions and Recommendations:

Based on the data collected and interpreted, it was observed that there is a need for further quantitative and qualitative examinations of transphobic ideologies in digital spaces and further expansion of academic resources concerning radicalization of TERFs within various SNS. This is due to the observation above that although tweets may misalign with Twitter’s hateful conduct policies they have (as of time of acquiring data) not been removed from the platform. 

The affordances of twitter as outlined by Davis and Chouinard – specifically the nature of like-minded users finding, empowering, and interacting with other like minded users –  speaks to how radicalization can develop an echo-chamber of user interactions.  The primary observation of this research has been the rate of interaction with various tweeting categories. The visualization reveals that TERF categorized tweets had a higher rate of interaction, with an average of 100,000 more impressions than tweets of other categories. Despite that other tweeting categories concerned various viral news topics and current world events as well as the online release of her new children’s book. 


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