JK Rowling and the Twitter Trolls

When Troubled Blood, the fifth instalment in Robert Galbraith/JK Rowling’s Strike series, was released two years ago, it provoked a deluge of weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth from those in the more vindictive, malicious or just credulous corners of the internet. Rowling’s ‘crime’ as detailed pretty much every hour on the hour by Pink News – a ‘news’ outlet with all the credibility of National Enquirer but much less amusing – was that her book was about a trans killer. Without having read the offending tome, Benjamin Butterworth appeared on Breakfast TV to denounce the witch and gifted grateful Twitter users a new and much loved Gif: the Buttergasp was born.

One might think that in the intervening period, some people would have taken a long, hard look at themselves and realised that they appeared incredibly silly; at least in the eyes of anyone who actually read the book and knew that it really, really (and I cannot stress this enough) was not about a trans killer by any conceivable stretch of the imagination.

However, if we’ve learnt anything in recent years, it is that there are some people who are so wedded to their pet hates (generally of women with opinions) and conspiracy theories that they will cling on to them with all the determination of a toddler with a set of car keys, are as equally impervious to reason, and have the same tendency to bawl and soil themselves in public when thwarted.

So we come to Strike number six and a deep dive into the world of social media persecutions, rampant misogyny, and damn lies. Rowling said that she planned the book long before she felt the full blast of the Buttergasp community (anyone with a passing understanding of publishing knows that there is a long period between first draft and final copy) and, sadly, the experience of countless women on Twitter, along with coordinated harassment campaigns like Gamergate and incel culture, will have provided plenty of material. Yet, readers will draw parallels with Rowling’s more recent experiences and this has certainly been picked up in several reviews.

The story concerns the persecution of YouTube creator, Edie Ledwell, by a  mysterious, malevolent  Twitter troll and game creator known as Anomie. Anomie hates Edie with a passion only equalled by an obsession with the show she co-created, The Ink Black Heart, and has dedicated him or herself to making her life as miserable as possible. Moreover, Anomie appears to have access to sources of information and is able to twist half truths, imbuing the lies with just enough plausibility and making attempts to discredit them seem weak and defensive. 

It goes without saying that Anomie and the Twitter trolls are not decent human beings. They revel in cruelty and take pleasure in hounding women to the point of suicide, even as they denounce such attempts as attention seeking. They launder lies and reveal personal information. Anomie makes petulant demands and complaints about the direction, artistic vision or characters (in a manner which will be familiar to anyone who has watched the online behaviour of acolytes of cult TV or film franchises) and claims ownership of Edie’s work for the “fandom”, bewailing her influence as malign and trying to divorce the work from the author (hello, Wizarding News!).

The warped “fandom” are not, though, the only internet ghouls: there are the incels and alt-right terror groups (not the kind who supposedly support Radical Feminists). These players are intent on stirring up and amplifying animosity targeted at successful uppity women like Edie. At the other end of the political spectrum, there are the earnest ‘progressives’ like the author of the ‘Pen of Justice’ blog, who disguises personal animus and misogyny as a desire for social justice, and minutely combs The Ink Black Heart for micro-aggressions in pieces entitled “The problematic pallet of the Ink Black Heart”  The Pen’s hypocritically pious hope that Edie will do better provokes earnest, endless purity spirals.

Then there are the gullible, who might not mean to be cruel but are either flattered or too frightened and cowed to resist. Some are buoyed up by self-importance and fall in with the male bullies for temporary shelter or the accolade of “leader in the fandom”. Almost swamped by the tsunami of hate are the majority of the genuine fans for whom the animation has been a source of joy or even a lifeline and who are bewildered and frightened by what occurs.

Now, if the unpleasant characters seem familiar, it may be that they have erupted with more than their usual dizzying, splenetic fury over the past two days. Many of the tweets could have been lifted word for word from the pages of the novel and are composed in the same idiosyncratic patter of the permanently outraged or the spittal flecked. As if determined to prove her point, they have mocked the notion of Rowling as a victim of abhorrent social media venom, even as they indulge in unhinged, abhorrent social media venom.

In the book, Edie says “they attack me for stuff I’ve never done , never said, things I don’t believe”.

So, let’s see what the Real Trolls of Twitter (a reality show if ever there was one) did to prove they, unlike their fictional counterparts, are decent, thoughtful, serious people who use evidence rather than emotion. Or not.

Lies about the book

Fast out of the blocks and pipping Pink News to the fake news post was Rolling Stone who, in an article that managed to squash in false and malicious comments about Maya Forstater, announced that the book was about a “cartoon creator who was doxxed by her own fandom over content viewers found transphobic and racist”. Anyone who actually read the book will know that these invented allegations are just one piece of the attacks on Edie. However, back in the real world, this false reading was taken up by various Twitter trolls who piously declared that the book concerned someone who was transphobic and racist and, in consequence, was “cancelled”. From there is a short hop and a skip to declare that this is how Rowling sees herself and to imbue her with the imagined crimes of Edie, which are now cemented as genuine in both the fictional Twitterverse and the real one.

Not wanting to be left out, the #ableism crew were also on the case. Not, as one might think, because a woman who uses a wheelchair was bullied in the most horrific manner by TRAs for standing with Rowling, but on the much more pressing matter of judging a 1000 page book based on three screenshots of stuff the characters say. One perspicacious “Award-winning freelance writer”  has been left “shaking with rage” after not reading the book but managed to recover enough from her manufactured outrage to beg editors for commissions in a Tweet as inane as it was illiterate.

Lies about what JK Rowling has said

Journalists are supposed to know that publishing lies can be expensive and it doesn’t matter if you do that in the News of the Screws or on Twitter. At this point we must assume that most of these people only identify as journalists (maybe a letter was printed in the Barbie Club Magazine when they were 12) because they have a relationship with truth that would make Kelvin MacKenzie blush. One such ornament to the profession reproduced a clearly fake screenshot with the breathless justification that it was captured by a “real life” friend who was, conveniently, nameless and probably went to a different school. So egregious was the lie that Rowling, rightly, responded and suggested that her lawyers would be interested. In a normal world, the Tweeter might remove, admit a mistake and apologise. This is not a normal world. Reactions from the Twatterati went as follows:

  1. It’s definitely true and my friend Stacey’s cousin Barry saw it when he was at Gaz’s.
  2. It might not be true but it’s definitely something she thinks, so it might as well be.
  3. It might not be true but she hasn’t denied she really thinks this, except for all the times she has [former Mayor of Bangor].
  4. It’s not true and it’s annoying it was posted because it allows her to deflect from all the actual terrible things she’s really said (one will come to me in a year or so) and pretend people are being horrible to her when it’s really all her own fault anyway. [This was a favourite from the Pen of Justice-esque bearded dude bros who write for online gaming publications or, in the case of Sam, the Guardian].
  5. It’s not true and it was wrong to post, but she is a MILLIONAIRE in a LITERAL CASTLE who is HARASSING a poor woman on Twitter and THREATENING her with lawyers, which therefore completely exculpates the person posting the original libel and they are now elevated to secular sainthood. 

Lies about things JK Rowling has done

This usually seems to involve depicting Rowling as the Keyser Soze of feminism, never really showing her full hand but definitely responsible for all the ills from crop failure to inflation. At this point the people who had never heard of Bob Heath – and, to be fair, have still never heard of Bob Heath – come in with accusations that “Robert Galbraith” was the father of conversion therapy instead of an assasinated 16th centurary judge, which if you are properly Scottish you would know! This usually runs:

 “it’s LITERALLY the same name.”

“He was Bob G Heath”

“It’s NEARLY literally the same name”

“It’s not really close”

“She does RESEARCH she should have known”

“He was called ‘forgotten’ because until 2016, no one actually had unearthed anything on him.”

“She should have changed everything IMMEDIATELY at that point and the fact she didn’t PROVES it was a deep ploy.”

Honestly, if Jo has this much influence – let’s sort out world peace NOW because the Illuminati and the Lizards have nothing on her.

It would be churlish not to grant the desperate “pick me” boys of the sniggering wedgie crew a moment in the sun. Clearly feeling aggrieved they were late to the party, and perhaps having replenished the coffers after their run in with Julie Bindel, Pink News belatedly entered the fray announcing that The Ink Black Heart was “widely mocked by those who saw the plot as a thinly-veiled attack on Rowling’s critics.” and  proceeded to hint at Rowling’s malign influence: “It comes after author Joanne Harris was bombarded with death threats from trolls in the wake of comments from Rowling, who accused Harris of not standing up for authors who have been called out for their gender-critical ideology.” This hugely unsubtle and unrelated  ellison of circumstances is a pretty standard Prick News tactic, it puts them just the right side of libel (for now), although anyone following the link might be forgiven for questioning whether Pink News’ report of Harris’s situation was entirely accurate, as it led to one of their own own articles which failed to bear out the hyperbolic claims and neglected to mention most comment was criticism sparked by her tasteless poll in response to the horrific stabbing of Salman Rushdie.

Of course Pink News is not original in using this tactic which is familiar to women used to seeing rape victims who want single-sex counselling services or Muslim women who want to swim blamed for the murder (by men) of Brazilian prostitutes. This week has seen the publication of the novel linked to everything from murder, suicide, bomb threats and burnt trees. 

General Idiots

Finally, we must pause to pay tribute to the idiots who breed like flies on the proverbial during a heatwave. Their insightful and original comments are generally variations on the theme of “why is she using a man’s name if she thinks people can’t change gender identity?”, presumably labouring under the belief that Charlotte Bronte was gender-fluid and Mary Ann Evans was a trans man. As FWS replied to one such numpty, “Do you think that whenever JK Rowling writes a Strike novel she slips into a false beard & smoking jacket & makes her husband call her Rab?” To be fair, though, they probably do.

So here we come to the serious bit. If you are an online troll you can rant and rave and spew hate and switch off when it gets too  much. But real people can’t. When you deliberately monster people, or when you gleefully try to “trend” stupid hashtags from the annoying – this week’s attempt to reveal the murderer in the novel – to the obscene – celebrating their imaginary “death” – what do you think you do to them and to their family, friends and loved ones? This isn’t an appeal to your decency, because, God knows, you have none, it is rather an appeal to the silent majority who should denounce you. Not because it is easy (it isn’t) but because it is right. For those of us who stood up to the playground bully, believe me, defying these people is easy. For those who wished they had, now is your chance!

If you have not yet immersed yourself in the world of Comoran Strike and Robin Ellacot, now is as good a time as any. The flawed but decent Strike, with his tragic past and his resistance to family or romantic relationships is a complex, compelling protagonist, but it is Robin we love. In her, Rowling has created that supposedly impossible thing; a character who is beautiful, bright, and brave and still seems like she’d be a laugh in the pub. She is the moral heart of the books yet is never cloying like a Pollyanna or priggish like a Fanny Price. The wonderful Joan Smith has commended Rowling’s mastery as a chronicler of misogyny. This is true, but in Robin, she has also captured something else: a fierce, clever, woman of integrity.

Let us all strive to be more Robin.