The impact of 'pile-ons' and trolling by gender critical Twitter users

Amid the ongoing ‘culture wars,’ it has become commonplace for those who are publicly gender critical to talk of the impact of being ‘cancelled’ and claim that they have been attacked online for their beliefs.

In a recent interview, Graham Lineham blames these online attacks for the end of his marriage; JK Rowling claimed the address of her home — which is a tourist destination with its own Wikipedia page — was posted online in a purported ‘doxxing’ attack; while former Sussex University lecturer Kathleen Stock claimed she was ‘forced out’ of her position at the university due to tweets.

But as concerns continue to grow about the level of transphobia in online spaces — with TikTok recently overhauling its community guidelines to tackle transphobic abuse on the app — a number of people have spoken to Metro.co.uk about their experiences of harassment at the hands of self-professed ‘gender critical’ Twitter accounts.

In June 2020, journalist Rachel Charlton-Dailey criticised Rowling on Twitter for her open letter, where she spoke about her view on single-sex bathrooms and experience of domestic abuse.

‘I tweeted that I thought it was disgusting that she was weaponising domestic violence victims, and that she doesn’t speak for me as a survivor of domestic abuse,’ she said. ‘But then these accounts all jumped on me.’

They continued: ‘I had people calling me an abuse apologist, a handmaiden, saying she absolutely did speak for me.

‘Some people doubted I was really an abuse victim if I still supported trans people.

‘A few even suggested what happened to me was my fault.’

Rachel describes the harassment as ‘awful’ and said ‘it went on for days’.

‘To have my past abuse thrown in my face was really quite galling and triggering.’ they said. ‘It was really upsetting. I had to lock my Twitter and come off it for several days.’

Another journalist, who would prefer to remain anonymous, had a similar experience when they tweeted something critical about Rowling.

‘I’ve received a lot of online abuse of my time, but the only tweet I’ve ever had to delete has been because of these kinds of accounts,’ they said. ‘The amount of visceral hate is scary.’

Like Rachel, the abuse this journalist received from these accounts quickly turned personal, with these accounts searching for their other, personal social media profiles and making comments about their family members and personal life.

‘They will comment on your photos, they will “like” everything, all because you stand in support of trans people,’ they added. ‘These people don’t see what they’re doing as wrong, so they think it’s fine to relentlessly harass you and every single aspect of your life.’

The journalist told Metro.co.uk that they frequently experience abuse by these kinds of accounts because they often write about trans issues.

‘You get a real sinking feeling in your heart when a piece goes viral, or is picked up by Twitter,’ they said. ‘It’s scary, because you know you’re about to get abuse.’

They continued: ‘These will tell you that you are a bad feminist, they will tell you that you are like submitting to men — I’m on a bunch of different Twitter lists calling me a handmaiden, telling me that I’m selling out other women to men.’

The journalist added that they are less impacted by the abuse now because ‘the more you experience it, the more numb you are to it’.

‘But also, it doesn’t make any sense,’ they said. ‘All you can really say to them is, Why are you so fervently obsessed? Why are you so anguished by this group of people that really don’t need your attention?’

For one postgraduate PHD candidate, whose identity we are also keeping anonymous, some of these accounts even went as far as telling them that they should take their own life.

‘In 2018 I published a list of charities for trans and gender non conforming students in my student paper because students had been affected by the writings and Twitter conduct of a professor at my university,’ they explained.

‘The piece wasn’t run by this professor before its publication, and so they tweeted that they would be taking legal action.’ This, the candidate explained, led to an influx of abuse on Twitter. ‘In my opinion, this professor mobilised their platform towards me,’ they added.

‘I received countless messages telling me to take my own life and this professor even engaged with tweets calling me things like a homophobe, misogynist, and a little s**t who should be kicked out of university.’

This led to the PHD candidate officially complaining to their university, but they claim that their complaint wasn’t upheld. ‘When I asked the university if they’d be legally liable if I followed up on the suggestions of the professor’s followers, they did not respond,’ the candidate said.

For journalist Dan Reast, who received abuse from these accounts after tweeting in objection to transgender ‘conversion therapy’, the level of abuse that comes from these accounts can feel like a coordinated attack.

‘It probably isn’t, but it does feel so co-ordinated,’ he said. ‘Because there are so many of these accounts, and they all look the same with the same kind of profile pictures, names and purple, green and white heart emojis, it really does feel that way.’

In 2018, Twitter implemented a number of measures such as banning misgendering, deadnaming, and transphobic slurs, in order to curb rising levels of transphobia on the platform. But many argue, five years on, that these measures are not enough.

Last year, transgender activist Munroe Bergdorf left Twitter as a result of transphobic abuse on the app, saying that ‘no one should have to endure even a fraction of the abuse’ that she deals with on a daily basis.

Similarly, in a 2021 op-ed for Metro.co.uk, author and transgender activist Ugla Stefanía Kristjönudóttir Jónsdóttir said that they have been ‘continuously shocked by just how toxic media debates surrounding transgender people really are – in particular on Twitter.’

A three-and-a-half-year study by anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label found that of the 10 million posts shared about transgender identity during that period, 1.5 million were transphobic.

‘Harassment by ‘gender critical’ accounts is a huge issue on Twitter,’ Rachel said. ‘It’s something that isn’t monitored enough and is allowed to happen far too much. It’s terrifying.’

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