The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling - Chapter 3: A New Pyre

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This episode contains language that might not be suitable for children.

Can you talk to me about some of the threats that you’ve received over the past few years?

There have been a lot. A huge amount, as every woman will know who speaks up on this issue,

a huge amount of, I want her to choke on my fat trans dick. You know, like, very sexualized

abuse. I don’t think all of them mean it literally, but attempts to degrade, to humiliate.

People might say, well, that’s not really a threat. And you know what, up to a point,

you’re probably right, though it’s very unpleasant to be on the receiving end of it, particularly

in the quantities I’ve had it. Then I have had direct threats of violence. And I have

had people coming to my house where my kids live, and I’ve had my address posted online.

I’ve had what the police anyway would regard as credible threats. The pushback is often,

you are wealthy, you can afford security, you haven’t been silenced. All true, right?

All of that’s true. But I think that misses the point. The attempt to intimidate and silence

me is meant to serve as a warning to other women. And I say that because I have seen

it used that way. I have seen other women, and other women have told me, I literally

had someone say this to me the other day, I was told, look, look what happened to J.K.

Rowling. Watch yourself.

Chapter 3. A New Pyre.

I didn’t have internet at all when Philosopher’s Stone came out. So around about 98, I did

have internet, but would use it to look stuff up, like most of us do, and I would use it

for email. But I think some sort of unconscious spirit of self-preservation had stopped me

going and looking at Harry Potter, to the point where the internet fandom cropped up

in interviews, and I thought, well, I need to know about this, because I can’t be ignorant

about this. I need to know. Well, I mean, I went online for the first time, and I just

had no idea. I just fell into this universe.

How deep into the fandom are you?

Very.

How many times do you think you’ve read the books?

10 to 15 times through the series.

The magic came from the first book, and there was just no turning back.

I’m Megan Phelps-Roper, and we begin today in Orlando, Florida, at LeakyCon. LeakyCon

is one of dozens of Harry Potter conventions that are held around the world every year.

Okay, so we are at LeakyCon 2022, and it is pretty packed.

I’ve been a fan since, I think, 1998. So I really grew up with Harry Potter.

And like many of these events, it takes place in a convention hall filled with a bunch of

people who are dressed up as characters from the books.

So I’m dressed up as Buckbeak today, and I’m here with my husband, who’s Sirius Black.

And then we have our witch hats and our wands.

I have my own prescription Harry Potter round glasses.

They sell handmade merchandise, they have meetups, and they even get tattoos.

This is just like my first childhood memory.

And how many Harry Potter tattoos do you think you’ve done?

Way too many to count.

And when you ask them, a lot of these fans are quick to say that it wasn’t just Harry

Potter that brought them together. It was the community they found surrounding it.

A lot of the community here at LeakyCon, they were my friends growing up. We were all online.

Specifically on the internet.

I think Harry Potter is so special because it was coming out right when everyone was

getting online.

Harry Potter, which would go on to become the best-selling book series of all time,

just happened to be published right as many people were getting their first introduction

to the internet.

And so there is a generation of people who grew up alongside both the characters in the

books and the ever-expanding power and influence of this new technology.

Pretty much as soon as I got on the internet, somehow, you know, at age 12, I must have

Googled Harry Potter.

In fact, for many fans, Harry Potter was their gateway to the internet. It was the first

thing they ever looked up on Yahoo or Google. It was their first email address.

We were able to talk to people from around the world and meet people that have the same

interests as us.

It was their first time talking to another person online. The first time they made a

screen name.

I was going to MuggleNet.com every day to get the updates, talking on message boards,

reading fan fiction on fanfiction.net. And it was just, it was such a special experience

to get to connect with so many people who you didn’t know necessarily, but who felt

the same passion for Harry Potter.

One of the things that I think you have to understand about Harry Potter is it is one

of the biggest fan experiences that modern culture has to offer.

This is Helen Lewis, staff writer at The Atlantic, where she writes and reports about politics

and internet culture.

You know, at its peak, there were people writing hundreds of thousands of Harry Potter fan

fiction stories. So taking the characters from Harry Potter and writing your own stories

for them.

I was equally fascinated and alarmed, if I’m honest.

Rowling says that when she saw the way her books were colliding with the still quite

new internet, much like her reaction to the book’s surprise success, she was taken aback,

but also really intrigued.

What connections did you see people specifically, you know, making with the books?

Well, there was the really sweet sorting of yourself into houses, which I think speaks

deeply to children and also to adolescents.

Are you wearing yellow because you identify as a Hufflepuff?

Yes, 100%.

There was obviously the championing of different romantic combinations, which was very sweet.

Why Hermione and Draco?

Who did not want the bad boy?

We can change him.

Yeah.

That was everybody’s fantasy, right?

Little groups of mutual support were made, you know, real friendships were made.

If you ever want to feel good about the world, go search the internet for friendships forged

by Harry Potter.

There are so many places where fans are just gushing.

Like one user says, my best friends in high school were a group of people I met because

we loved talking about Harry Potter online.

I’m so happy that I’m alive at the same time as the internet.

I watched it happening.

I could see really beautiful interactions happening online.

And you know, in later years, I’ve met people, I met my best friend on MuggleNet, you know,

my husband and I connected over Harry Potter.

We are wearing our matching shirts from when we got engaged.

And we had a complete Harry Potter wedding where we wore house robes instead of tuxes.

That’s happened time and time again.

And it’s a beautiful, it’s just a beautiful thing.

So huge positives came out of that.

The biggest of the early fan websites was called MuggleNet.

It was set up in 1999 by a 12-year-old homeschool kid in Indiana who could have had no idea

how much the site was going to change his life.

And that’s partly because Rowling eventually embraced it.

She was one of the first authors, the first creators of any kind, really, to invest time

and energy communicating directly with her fans online, doing interviews, answering fan

questions, really catering to the community she saw forming there.

But she also told me that on at least one occasion, she went into one of these forums

anonymously.

So I chose a random name that was not a Potter-related name.

I was almost scared, even though they’ve all got Potter-related names, that I would choose

a name that was a little, I don’t know, I was just scared I would somehow self-reveal.

So I go into this chat room, and people are sharing some theories.

And I gave an opinion that was very bland.

And I got rounded on by users who told me in no uncertain terms just to get out.

I’m not familiar in that room.

I’m clearly an idiot who doesn’t know anything.

But I genuinely, and I left.

I left.

And I was thinking, do you know what, I promise you this is what I thought.

I’ve written three and a half books, I think it would have been at that time, where bullying

is such a theme from the very first page, where bullying and authoritarian behavior

is held to be one of the worst of human ills.

Look what just happened.

And these people who call themselves such fans of this franchise, what if I’d been a

12?

I didn’t care.

I was a pretty robust person.

But what if I’d been some 12-year-old who’s excited to go into this room, and is immediately

caustically chastised for not belonging?

Just kick someone out because they’re new.

And I thought that was so interesting, that you’re passionate about these books.

And yet, in the course of living, you are behaving in a way that I depict as one of

the worst and most stupid human behaviors.

This being the early days of the internet, it was also the early days of a kind of social

behavior that we now generally know as trolling.

There were definitely individual trolls on the MuggleNet forums, purely there to be objectionable.

And even though they were just this small part of the community.

It was a fringe, but it was definitely there.

Having noticed that they did seem to have outsized power.

At first, I thought it’s kind of amusing that this is how you’re spending your time.

But as time went on, I started to really see it as bullying.

There was an edge of picking off vulnerable people.

And I was very aware by that time, early 2000s, that a lot of kids who felt themselves to

be outsiders, who were vulnerable, were finding themselves in Potter.

Why do you like Harry Potter?

He felt like an outsider, and he felt like he didn’t belong, and I really, that really

resonated with me.

Like, I had not such a great childhood, and I think a kid with not such a great childhood

actually escaped to something else in a book.

Many of the people that like Harry Potter tend to be the ones outside, especially if

you’re a child that isn’t well loved.

I felt protective of those people, so watching trolls operate in those spaces increasingly

did not amuse me.

It began to concern me.

Both of us had challenging, crappy upbringing and childhoods, and when you talk to people

that are like the really crazy fans, I feel like that’s something that comes up more often

than not.

And I think Harry Potter was one of the things that was just always there for people.

You grow up feeling like the weird one of the bunch, but then you realize there’s so

many other people out there like you, and then you don’t feel so alone anymore, you

know?

So that’s the best part about Harry Potter.

And indeed, I actually ended up in long-term pen pal relationships with some of those people.

You know, I can remember a situation where a young person had written a letter that resulted

in my then assistant and I calling that child’s school.

We were very, very concerned that this child might be about to kill themselves.

I just was hyper aware, and I remain hyper aware, that the Potter books were a refuge

for some people who were, for very different reasons, very vulnerable.

One of the groups that really gravitated both to the Harry Potter books and to the online

fandom were gay teenagers.

The president of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay rights lobbying organization

in the US, once referred to Rowling as a writer whose work has inspired countless LGBTQ young

people to imagine a world of acceptance and inclusivity.

Were you surprised by the way that gay teenagers in particular really started to connect with

the books?

Did that surprise you at all?

Honestly, it didn’t because the amazing thing about the Wizarding World is you walk through

that wall in Diagon Alley, and while human nature remains the same, and that’s something

that I was setting out to depict, human nature remains the same.

If you can do magic, the ludicrous things that we discriminate about in the Muggle world

really are utterly immaterial.

What do you think were the messages in your book that misfits people who felt like outsiders,

what messages were they connecting with?

I think that some of the most sympathetic characters, like Lupin, for example, who is

stigmatized through something that he can’t help, can’t control, some of the most sympathetic

characters are people who are grappling with things that may be stigmatized, and they’re

all imperfect.

Harry has anger issues, Ron can be, I think I call him a git quite a lot in the books,

but together they are more than the sum of their parts, together they grow, they find

family in each other, and there’s real human beauty in that.

I suppose the Dursleys are my epitome of a very authoritarian and conformist world that

demands absolute obedience, and that’s not the world you enter when you go to Hogwarts.

Our grade in school was the same year each book came out, so my exact class almost grew

up with Harry.

We were 11 when Harry was 11.

As each book came out, these characters figured out a lot of normal life things right along

with us.

Many fans credit the morals of the books with helping shape their morals growing up.

Friendship and loyalty and bravery and doing the right thing when the right thing is hard

to do.

The way people pull together, they’re different, they don’t all exactly agree with one another,

but they can say, okay, this is the common good, and this is what we’re going to work

for.

We need a whole lot more of that.

And as they got older and went from middle schoolers lined up at the midnight release

parties to young adults heading off to college, some of those morals also became more mature.

Things like media literacy, understanding when maybe the media is lying to you, and

having to really think critically.

To many of these fans, Rowling became something of a moral authority in their lives, giving

them this series to grow up with and being this figure that they could look up to.

I idolized her for a really long time.

She was a great feminist icon.

Online we called her Jo because we felt like we were on a first name basis.

I think a lot of us actually kind of feel like she was our mom in some ways.

She was just the mom of the Harry Potter fandom.

I became aware that I was to an extent becoming an idealized figure, and probably an idealized

mother figure.

And that is a complex position to find yourself in.

And for me particularly, it’s complex because I am a maternal person.

It’s not that they’re seeing something in me that isn’t there.

And I have had quite maternal relationships with some individual fans who’ve been going

through bad times.

But to be idealized is not something I want.

I am a human being.

I couldn’t have written these books if I weren’t a human being, and aware of human frailty

and human imperfection.

And I’m very aware that idealization comes at a price.

Last summer, in a grand celebration of literature, Harvard Square and Harvard Yard was transformed

into Hogwarts Square.

This summer festival celebrated the midnight release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

I want to talk about your 2008 commencement address at Harvard.

At this point, you are about 10 years since the days you were struggling in that small

flat.

You had become one of the most beloved authors of all time, and you’re speaking at the most

prestigious school in America, arguably the world.

Her books have set sales records and have won many awards, probably because the Harry

Potter stories provide a familiar backdrop for readers who can empathize with the young

protagonist adrift in a sometimes cruel and challenging world.

And so at this point, for better or for worse, you do seem to be seen as a moral leader.

And the person who introduces you says this, actually.

In addition to her vast contributions to literature, she is also noted for the social,

moral, and political inspiration she has given her fans, a notable philanthropist.

And it’s a remarkable thing to go back and watch.

And now I give you Ms. J.K. Rowling.

You’re up there, dressed in robes, standing in front of this generation that grew up alongside

Harry Potter, and you’re talking to them as they are launching into the world.

The first thing I would like to say is thank you.

Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honor, but the weeks of fear and nausea I

have endured at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight.

On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success,

I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure.

And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called real life, I want to extol

the crucial importance of imagination.

And your speech is very personal and vulnerable.

Now I’m not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun.

That period of my life was a dark one.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure?

Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential.

I was set free because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and

I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea.

And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

But you also challenged them.

Now you might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of imagination, because

of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but that is not wholly so.

I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense.

In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us

to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

You tell them that they need to be empathetic to people who are not like them.

Unlike any other creature on this planet, human beings can learn and understand without

having experienced.

What is more, those who choose not to empathize enable real monsters, for without ever committing

an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it through our own apathy.

We do not need magic to transform our world.

We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already.

We have the power to imagine better.

And the crowd just goes wild.

And they love it, and they love you.

But at this point, it’s really hard to imagine that you would be welcome at Harvard at all,

or that you’d get that kind of reception from that crowd.

From that crowd.

And what I want to understand from your point of view is what changed, and maybe when did

you start to notice it changing?

I would say about a decade ago, I started to become very interested in what was going

on online, and concerned about what was going on online.

I noticed a real shift.

We’ll be right back.

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So in the early days of the internet, by definition, the people who were on there were going to

be people who are really passionate about the future of computers.

This is writer and internet historian Angela Nagel.

People with a lot of imagination and maybe tendency towards utopian thinking.

The internet is for me the hope for humanity.

The internet provides everybody a voice and the chance to be heard, which is the whole

point about democracy.

They had an idea that the internet would bring democracy and freedom to the world and that

it would be impossible for dictatorships and tyranny to coexist with the internet.

In 2007, when Rowling released the final installment in the Harry Potter series, and in 2008 when

she gave that address at Harvard, this was a time when internet usage around the world

was exploding, both in terms of how many people were gaining access to the internet and in

terms of how much we used it, especially because it coincided with the invention of the smart

phone.

And Nagel says that it was also a time when it seemed like some of those optimistic dreams

of what the internet could usher in were coming true.

I guess the first manifestation that maybe proved to those utopians that they could be

right is that you saw things like the Arab Spring, where protesters used social media

to gather in public squares and protest dictatorships.

And you also had the election of Barack Obama, which was very much seen as the internet generation’s

president.

I never thought in my lifetime that it would happen, but it happened tonight.

It’s a reality and we did it.

America is now more united, we did it.

People were becoming more progressive and more multicultural.

Also there was this very powerful idea of the global village, all humanity as one, sort

of in this one collective consciousness on the internet.

But then, then of course, inevitably things started to go a little bit weird.

Nearly half of Americans say they feel more and more like a stranger in their own country.

This has, over the last few decades, increasingly empowered the extremes of political parties.

These can often be traced back to the rise of online extremism.

Elected officials have been shot at community meetings.

This increasing habit of demonizing political opponents creates a dangerous climate.

Is the internet killing democracy?

So, what happened?

Many people blame this disruptive technology that we call social media, which over the

last two decades went from something that barely existed at all to the single most powerful

tool for communication in history, shaping our politics, our societies, and our sense

of reality.

Now it is undeniable that social media has done tangible good, helping people like me

expand our moral circle and find our partners and friends.

Just a brief homage to social media from me, it was conversations on Twitter that helped

me leave what many describe as a religious cult, and it also introduced me to my husband,

the father of my two children.

However, over the past few years, many, including some of the very optimists who helped design

the internet as we know it today, have been outspoken in saying that social media has

corrupted the dream of what the internet could do for the world.

Like computer scientist Jaron Lanier, who argues that social media poses a real threat

to a pluralistic society.

Society has been gradually darkened by this scheme in which everyone is under surveillance

all the time, and everyone is under this mild version of behavior modification all

the time.

It’s made people jittery and cranky, it’s made teens especially depressed, which can

be quite severe, but it’s made our politics kind of unreal.

And he, along with former Google engineer Tristan Harris, have focused a lot of their

concern around social media, on the algorithms and the profit motives of big tech.

There’s a tendency to think here that this is just human nature, you know, that’s just

people are polarized and this is just playing out, it’s a mirror, it’s holding up a mirror

to society.

But what it’s really doing is it’s an amplifier for the worst parts of us.

But far less attention has been paid to the question of where certain polarizing beliefs

and norms began to gain a foothold online.

And the answer turns out to be, in part, these small, strange, and fascinating corners

of the internet.

When you started writing and doing PhD research into these smaller, peculiar online subcultures,

did people think you’d lost your mind?

Yeah, definitely.

I had many, many arguments with people where they said, oh, what does this matter, it’s

just some obscure, some people on the internet, it’s not real life.

And I kept telling people, no, you’re getting this wrong, this is going to change the world,

this is hugely important, and it’s going to be massively impacting your life in a few

years from now.

In 2017, Angela Nagle published a book called Kill All Normies, which helped explain the

rise of the alt-right.

But it also revealed, in a powerful way, this handful of online forums and websites, places

on the internet that most people had never even heard of or spent any real time on, and

how they’ve come to have a profound impact on almost every aspect of our politics and

society.

So, in my book, I focused on two main forums because I felt that they were possibly the

most influential, and they also represented very politically different groups.

The first of these two forums was Tumblr.

I was fascinated by Tumblr culture, and for those who don’t know, Tumblr is a micro-blogging

website and is very popular with young women.

Which was also one of the key places where Rowling says she started to notice these changes

online.

I started to be intrigued by the use of the word identify.

This was something I was seeing rising in culture, particularly from the younger generation.

And I don’t see that as necessarily a malign thing, because I think we all have an identity,

and identity is important to all of us for a stable sense of self.

But I was noticing something that I thought was interesting, and then that began to disturb

me.

Tumblr went live in 2007, and it gained some popularity in the early 2010s.

The whole idea of the site was built off of the popularity of blogging, or online journaling.

But unlike other blogging sites, Tumblr tapped into what would eventually make social media

so addictive.

Tumblr is like Twitter but longer, so you can reblog people’s content.

Again, Helen Lewis, staff writer at The Atlantic.

So it has a kind of viral element to it, but it was also very image-based.

Tumblr was kind of a cross between Instagram and Twitter.

And for early Tumblr users, it was just as addictive as those apps would eventually become.

And these people on Tumblr largely fit into a few different groups.

One of them was fans.

Fans of Twilight and Doctor Who and, of course, a ton of Harry Potter fans.

But here, they no longer had to log into chat rooms or poke around message boards to connect

with other fans, because on Tumblr, it was all in one big scrollable feed.

And it became a big place for teenagers to hang out, to draw their own comics, to write

their own fan fiction, to engage in all kinds of fandom, essentially, around these big properties.

It’s also important to know that a lot of the people on Tumblr were anonymous.

And over time, the site became inundated with porn.

The other big group that was on Tumblr were masturbators.

It’s a very sexual environment, because the moderation was, like, super loose.

So that obviously is going to attract the attention of many different groups.

This is Catherine D., aka Default Friend, writer, internet historian, and admitted former

Tumblr addict.

A lot of, like, fetishists and pornographers and sex workers, and you also have a lot of

teenagers.

You know, it was a very odd place to be sometimes, Tumblr, because you would have this just endless

porn interspersed with very cute kawaii comics and anime and very kind of infantilized cultures.

And you have a lot of, like, horny teenagers who are exploring their sexuality and they’re

drawing erotic fan art, or they’re even posting photos of themselves.

Years later, Tumblr would be singled out by law enforcement for being a major source of

child pornography online.

And that ultimately forced them to moderate their content.

But back in the early 2010s, it was pretty much a free-for-all.

And then finally, you have the activists, who are giving you new language to describe

your experience, potentially giving you a sense of meaning.

Like other social media sites eventually would, Tumblr attracted a lot of activists.

And in Tumblr’s case, it was activism particularly around sex positivity and gender identity.

These groups had a huge influence on a lot of different subcultures that ended up forming

on Tumblr.

And all of that together really creates a Tinder box.

And so this place full of teenagers and activists and fans and fetishists and porn, it wasn’t

just a place where you could invent a new character in your Harry Potter fan fiction.

It ultimately became a place where users could create and experiment with new identities

for themselves.

The thing I remember thinking about it most is, it was almost like a huge live action

role-playing game.

Tumblr was a place that was allowing people to explore these new forms of identification.

I would say that Tumblr is probably most notorious for generating hundreds of gender identities.

This is Natalie Nguyen, a popular online commentator better known as ContraPoints.

I am a YouTuber.

That is, I guess, a profession.

And my videos are about social issues or politics or media.

A lot of it has been focused on gender because I’m a transgender woman.

I transitioned in 2017 and have been doing videos pretty consistently ever since.

People still talk about, quote, Tumblr genders.

Oh, there’s 76 genders.

That was a meme for years.

You could be lumigender, that is having a gender that was, you know, illuminating like

a light or ambigender, pangender, xenogender.

They really embraced this idea of genderqueer, which is, you know, a word that was used before

non-binary.

There was also a lot of talk about otherkin.

So otherkin were people who said that although they looked like they were human, they were

actually wolves or dragons.

And they were quite insistent about this, that this was a, this was an identity that

you could adopt.

This is where you get people who say things like, my gender is a cloud.

How much of it was just playfulness and how much appeared to be like sincere self-discovery?

Well, I think that playfulness is part of self-discovery.

Natalie Nguyen appreciated this aspect of Tumblr, and she says that it’s exactly why

some people like her were drawn to the site.

For a lot of young queer people, engaging in this imaginative play about all the possibilities

of gender was like a way for them to experiment with different imaginative possibilities or

what’s possible with gender.

There was a culture that was encouraged on Tumblr, which was to be able to describe your

unique non-normative self.

Again, Angela Nagel.

And that’s to some extent a feature of modern society anyway, but it was taken to such an

extreme that people began to describe this as the snowflake, the person who constructs

a totally kind of boutique and unique identity for themselves, and then guards that identity

in a very, very sensitive way and reacts in an enraged way when anyone does not respect

the uniqueness of their identity.

And Nagel says that these norms around identity, and this increased sensitivity to identities

of all kinds, it spread across huge swaths of Tumblr.

So that was very much the culture of Tumblr.

And at the same time, you had on the other side of the political spectrum, you could

say, the most insensitive culture imaginable, which was the culture of 4chan.

And the culture of 4chan was really based around transgression and offensiveness and

the kind of fun of being offensive.

About like 30 to 45 minutes ago, I beat the fuck out of my dick so goddamn hard that I

can’t even feel my left leg.

My left leg has went…

You know, the entire culture became a sort of a one-upmanship of who can post the most

outrageous or offensive thing imaginable.

And so they’re going to make Holocaust jokes and they’re going to make Anne Frank jokes.

Making an ethnostate is hard work.

I mean, you really got to ask yourself, what eugenics programs are you going to use?

What type of plumbing do you use in your internment camps?

So 4chan, if you’ve never heard of it, it was actually somewhat similar to Tumblr in

that it was largely anonymous and text and image based.

There were a lot of fans there, especially anime, and it had lots of porn and lots of

young people.

But where Tumblr attracted a lot of girls and women, 4chan skewed way more male.

Back in 2014, 4chan made headlines after users there pulled this stunt that generated some

panic about how hackers were able to access people’s private photos in the cloud.

Several A-list stars are the target of what appears to be one of the biggest celebrity

hacking leaks.

Users of private nude photographs were apparently accessed from phones and leaked online.

Jennifer Lawrence and several other celebrities had their personal nude photos stolen out

of the cloud and leaked on 4chan.

Do we even know who is this 4chan person or website?

He may, and I’m sure we’re going to be able to get some more information.

Where users shared and sold the nudes, made gifs and memes out of them, and celebrated

how much attention this got.

So in a lot of ways, the norms and mores of Tumblr and 4chan end up being these kind

of mirror images of one another.

You have this kind of reinforcing culture of ultra-sensitivity on one side, and this

reinforcing culture of anti-sensitivity on the other side.

And both of these cultures are growing at the same time.

If you’ve ever heard a kind of right-wing activist railing against woke culture, then

you’ll be hearing them condemning phrases that were popularized on Tumblr.

Microaggression, trigger warnings, Latinx, non-binary, two-spirit, transgender.

You know, even the idea of being cis as opposed to being trans, you know, the idea that everybody

was one of those two things.

If you dig through the Wayback Machine or Google Analytics, you can see that many of

these words and phrases that have become pretty mainstream on the political left, and have

become the focus of a lot of backlash from the political right, many of them can be traced

back to their increased use on Tumblr.

People start Googling them between 2011 and 2014.

That’s when you see the first spike.

And this is also the same period when the use of social media in general was exploding.

So more and more people were spending more and more of their time on these platforms.

And you can go back and kind of watch how these ideas start to migrate outward from

Tumblr.

So a good example of this is the word Latinx, right?

If you look at early articles about the word Latinx, so these are articles that are coming

out between 2013 and 2015, a lot of them reference Tumblr.

Gabby Rivera of Autostraddle wrote, the word Latinx has been appearing on my Tumblr dashboard

for the last year.

The website Latino Rebels also ran an article about the term, and they were like, this word

comes from Tumblr and we don’t like it.

It’s from the American blogosphere and nobody in Latin America uses it.

Even though some of these ideas were openly mocked by many people, others became quite

mainstream quite quickly.

So like when Facebook announced it was suddenly offering like 40 different gender identities

and a lot of people were confused, do you think it’s right to say that essentially they

were just catching up to what Tumblr had been doing for years at that point?

Oh, of course.

Facebook was definitely playing catch up.

The idea of privilege was very big.

You know, the idea that you have white privilege, male privilege, cis privilege, that really

came from Tumblr and has had a sort of odd effect on discourse ever since.

And things that we wouldn’t have recognized as being offensive suddenly were considered

offensive.

There’s a real culture of like calling not only people, but media properties and the

creators of those media properties problematic on Tumblr.

And so that’s really where you get cancel culture in a sense, which takes sensitivity

and the strengthening of taboos to such a point that anyone who transgresses them should

be just totally removed from the conversation.

People online did discover that there is a kind of clout to be gained from discovering

what is problematic about a popular figure.

There used to be a Tumblr blog called Your Fave is Problematic.

Your Fave is Problematic was a Tumblr account created in 2013 by an anonymous American high

school student.

Initially, it was just a place where she would call out celebrities and artists, as well

as their hardcore fans on Tumblr.

It was just like a list of celebrities or popular figures and all of their sort of social

justice sins.

There’d be a call out of Jennifer Lawrence, who wore fake dreads for a photo shoot, or

Tina Fey for a rape joke on 30 Rock.

You know, Justin Bieber did cultural appropriation in this, and Miley Cyrus did that.

And so if you like them, you’re a terrible person.

But quickly, and to this high school Tumblr user’s surprise, the account grew massively

popular on Tumblr, and it started to create these real backlashes, leading to big stars

issuing apologies.

And these fandoms that were such a big presence on Tumblr, they were increasingly turning

on the very creators of the books and films and television shows that they were such big

fans of, whether it was Stephanie Meyer, who wrote the Twilight series and was accused

of being racist, or Anne Rice, who was accused of sexism.

So this is happening over and over and over again, and people on other parts of the internet

are making fun of Tumblr constantly about it.

And JK Rowling was not immune.

First rolling backlash was in 2016, when she wrote about Native American wizards.

And she wrote about skinwalkers, this idea of malevolent wizards who disguise themselves

as animals.

And the outcry then was about cultural appropriation, which is a very Tumblr concern, cultural appropriation,

the idea that, you know, you’re borrowing bits and pieces from other cultures, you know,

you’re going to a music festival and you’re wearing a Native American headdress or whatever

it might be.

And so in 2016, JK Rowling was accused of Native American appropriation, of appropriating

another culture.

And that was the first time I thought, ah, she is no longer left wing enough for her

fans.

That’s interesting.

Do you remember how it felt when you first started to see those things?

I definitely saw it in the context of this is happening everywhere.

So I didn’t take it super personally.

But I was seeing this happen across the board to artists.

And there was a kind of puritanism that was rising that to me seemed very illiberal.

So very contrary, I suppose, to my values, to my core values.

So yeah, it happened to me.

I was watching it happening to other artists.

I was watching it happening to other sort of properties, creative properties.

And it was inevitable I was going to be hit with it too.

Was it enjoyable?

No.

Did I take it really personally?

No.

That’s the honest answer.

Cancel culture is probably as old as humanity in a way.

But in the style of the internet, I think Tumblr was very, very central to that.

Your fave is problematic, even at the peak of its popularity, only had around 50,000

followers.

The fans who turned on these different creators, they didn’t represent anything close to the

majority view of the artist in the hot seat, or even the average fan’s views.

But then, when the battles on Tumblr became enmeshed on another platform, its effects

became much more far reaching.

It’s only when it gets to Twitter that it’s this monster that is a complete runaway train.

Twitter is like, I don’t know, it’s like being on the National Mall.

It’s like being in Times Square.

That’s where you’re having these fights, right?

Like the biggest public forum.

You know, every journalist in the world is on Twitter, practically.

And politicians are on it, public figures are on it.

So that really changes the dynamic.

When it’s not fandom wars, it’s like, Twitter is politics, full stop.

Twitter had two things that Tumblr lacked.

One was a much larger user base.

And the other was the presence of a huge number of journalists from around the world.

Those journalists began to pick up these stories, publishing them in mainstream media

outlets.

And so this small group of people, shaped by the norms of Tumblr, appeared to have a

much bigger presence in society than it actually did.

That gave them more of an ability to influence politics.

And it also fueled an aggressive backlash from places like 4chan.

No!

Social justice warrior.

4chan users delighted in developing new ways to inflict reputational damage on people,

who they saw as embodying these values from Tumblr.

A very common thing, for example, was raiding a person’s Wikipedia page and filling it

up with negative material, or putting out a post about a person’s sexual assault.

Putting out, like, fake revenge pornography, spreading outrageous lies about people.

They made fake accounts and photoshopped pictures and videos.

They targeted people in the media, who they saw as perpetuating the culture of sensitivity

Tumblr, giving more and more power to that side of the debate.

Users on 4chan started doxing them, swatting their houses, and sending them death threats.

That was sort of very common from the, let’s say, anti-political correctness side.

But then on the other side, you also had things like getting people fired for a joke that

was a bit off-color.

You know, publicly shaming people for something that they said many years previous that has

since become politically incorrect.

Is this like the phenomenon of digging up old tweets?

Yes, digging up old tweets.

One example would be something like, you find a picture of somebody, and they’re white,

and they’re wearing a traditional Chinese dress at an event.

And somebody says, this is cultural appropriation.

Those kind of deliberate attempts to use public shaming and moral pressure to destroy people’s

livelihoods and careers.

And Nagel says that over time, the tactics and norms that emerged from these subcultures

that felt embattled, they began to really shape the language and norms of internet culture

more broadly.

And so we had to deal with a new sort of mean, cruel quality to the internet.

What’s fascinating about this is that the sensitive, politically correct culture of

Tumblr is driven to greater and greater extremes because they see the enemy culture that comes

from places like 4chan.

And likewise, the culture of 4chan is sort of inspired to become more and more extreme

because they see the culture of Tumblr.

And so both are not only reinforcing the culture within their communities, but by observing

the other side, they feel more like their political project is necessary.

And therefore, they have to become more and more extreme in order to fight this evil in

the world.

You’ve talked about what you’ve described as a witch hunt impulse when it comes to the

dynamics of online cancel culture.

What is that impulse?

And what parallels do you draw maybe to the witch hunts of old?

Well, I think that people, there’s a lot of sources of aggression.

I think that aggression is a basic human instinct.

I think there’s a lot of kind of free-form aggression in search of a target.

Natalie Wynn has a video with the title, Cancel Culture, where she goes into detail about

what she sees as some of the underlying and very human impulses inspiring people on Tumblr

and beyond.

Freud discusses this, like morality can be sadistic, the sadistic superego, he calls it.

And the idea is that you kind of use that kind of punishing, shaming, moral condemnation.

That becomes an outlet for aggression in itself.

And so I think for people, it can become a way to attack someone while also kind of feeling

good about themselves, which is a very, I think, tempting place to be, right?

You’re trashing someone, but you feel like you’re crusading.

I was starting to think about this a lot, subcultures that have their own rigid rules,

acceptable beliefs, non-acceptable beliefs, everything becoming very reductive.

I was also deeply concerned by it because to me, it was a rise of the kind of authoritarianism

and lack of empathy that is in all of my books.

It’s in literally every book I write.

If there’s one thing that I stand against more than any other, it is authoritarianism.

And that cuts across political persuasions, cuts through atheists all the way through

to various different religions.

So I was definitely seeing that.

And I was becoming really concerned.

I think the first time I became really interested in what was going on, sort of culturally.

I’ve taken some time out of my busy schedule, being fabulous and doing my hair, to prepare

a speech for you.

Well, a few remarks, really.

It was Milo Yiannopoulos.

Feminism is cancer.

Thank you very much.

The outright provocateur, I suppose you would call him.

In 2016, this battle online really started to move offline.

And for many people, the person who signaled this shift was an editor from Breitbart, who

essentially was the culture of 4chan in human form, Milo Yiannopoulos.

I think Milo Yiannopoulos was very much an embodiment of the moment where the culture

of places like 4chan sort of bursts into the mainstream.

As Milo was booked to speak on college campuses, he was increasingly met with protesters demanding

that he be stopped, leading to real political violence.

And I’m watching from across the pond as he tries to speak on various campuses.

And there are protests, riots.

It’s locked down as more than 1,000 people rallied against the appearance of a controversial

editor from Breitbart, Milo Yiannopoulos.

We want him deplatformed.

We don’t want him to speak at all.

They’re using free speech as a justification to have these fascists come to Berkeley.

And I thought it was a terrible strategic error.

Overnight mayhem on campus.

The University of California, Berkeley erupting in flames as over 1,000 came out to protest.

My feeling was, you are giving this man way more power than he deserves by behaving in

this way.

It made Milo look sexier and edgier than he deserved to look.

Is there anybody in here who hates me?

Yes, there we go, thank you.

I thought it was a strategically appalling turn.

Get on that platform and eviscerate his ideas.

Get on that platform and expose him for the charlatan that he is.

You push back hard, but you’ve given him so much power by refusing to talk.

Milo went from relative obscurity to being a regular on primetime television and political

talk shows in just a few months.

You know, I have marched in my life.

I’ve certainly been part of mass movements.

I’ve signed petitions and I’ve demonstrated in certain ways.

But when it comes to a speaker like that, I just thought they were undermining their

own ends.

I thought they were serving his purposes because he was able to walk away from that

saying, look, they won’t even, they don’t dare debate me.

This is how dangerous and edgy I am.

And I don’t think we want to cast the alt-right in that light, but inadvertently, that’s

exactly what they’re doing.

I think so, yeah.

Rowling says that she was alarmed watching people who she saw as being on her side of

the political aisle, behaving in a way that she felt broke with her deeply held principles.

Even when the target was someone who she agreed was offensive and immoral and a political

opponent.

And she started to think that maybe this was something she needed to speak up about.

I was becoming unnerved by some of what I was seeing.

I thought the way this activist movement is behaving is troubling me.

But then, she started to see that it wasn’t just her political opponents who were being

treated this way.

I was starting to see activists behaving in a very aggressive way outside feminist meetings.

These are trans activists protesting outside a feminist meeting.

They’re shouting TERF.

It stands for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists.

Like, what were they doing?

There was a feminist meeting in which they were banging and kicking on windows.

Very threatening.

They were masked.

Which frankly is never a good look.

If you’re a good guy, you’re probably not going to be standing there in a black balaclava.

I watched that happening and I was deeply disturbed because now this movement that

I started being interested in, now this is really happening.

It’s playing out very fast.

You’ve been listening to The Witch Trials of J.K.

Rowling, produced by Andy Mills, Matthew Boll, and me, Megan Phelps-Roper, and brought to

you by The Free Press.

Our sincere thanks to you for listening, and we would love to listen to you too.

If you have any thoughts or questions for us, you can send us an email at witchtrialsatthefp.com.

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