TERFS are by no means alone in responding to real or perceived limits on their free speech by relocating to new platforms where they can set their own content-moderation policies. Credit: Sergey Zolkin / Unsplash

It’s easier than ever to be an anti-trans activist on the internet these days, especially if you know where to go.

Take trans-exclusionary radical feminists. 

More commonly known as TERFs, they constitute a tiny fraction of contemporary feminists. You wouldn’t know that, however, from the disproportionate amount of space they take up on mainstream digital platforms.

There, TERFs organize themselves, recruit new members and subject trans people to a seemingly endless barrage of cruelty and abuse.

Mumsnet, Britain’s hugely popular social media site for parents, is a driving force behind that country’s war on trans women. Twitter hosts a well-integrated TERF community known for targeting trans users for doxing, mass-reporting (wherein mobs of transphobic users will try to get a trans person suspended or banned by “reporting” them for violating a social media site’s “community guidelines”) and other forms of online harassment. Substack is host to anti-trans bloggers like Graham Linehan and Abigail Shrier; a popular TERF bullying tactic is to subscribe trans people to these newsletters en masse without their consent.

However, TERFs are a subculture with a persecution complex, obsessed with cancel culture and the supposed censorship of those opposed to trans rights.

From their perspective these mainstream platforms are a precarious home. As TERF software engineer M.K. Fain told The Atlantic’s Kaitlyn Tiffany in 2020, “male-run, centralized, and proprietary platforms can not be trusted to have women’s best interest at heart,” which is why TERFs “must create our own solutions.”

Over the past decade, that is exactly what TERFs like Fain have done.

The result is the TERF alt-internet: an emerging network of digital publications and social media platforms designed to be TERF-friendly alternatives to mainstream sites and their content-moderation policies (however lax).

Pushed out of the mainstream

Ovarit.com is among the better known TERF platforms. When Reddit banned popular TERF forum r/GenderCritical in June 2020 as part of a site-wide crackdown on hate speech that also removed alt-right subreddit r/The_Donald, among others, Fain and the subreddit’s moderators simply built their own link-aggregator to continue r/GenderCritical’s anti-trans legacy

Fain had already founded TERF media platform 4w.pub in 2019 after being pushed off blogging-site Medium for, in her words, “speaking out against mainstream liberal narratives on sex and gender.” That same year, she also co-founded Twitter alternative Spinster.xyz. Both Twitter and Spinster were key organizing tools in the founding of caWsbar, currently Canada’s most prominent anti-trans activist organization.

Fain’s been unusually productive, to be sure. But her work is just the latest example of anti-trans feminists setting off for greener pastures when it suits them.

In 2012, Canadian journalist and anti-trans instigator Meghan Murphy launched Feminist Current as a radical feminist counter to progressive and mainstream media outlets

That’s a more palatable way of saying that the digital magazine is a place for TERFs to push back against the so-called “harms of gender identity ideology.” Indeed, Murphy and this website controversially parted ways in 2015 after her anti-trans commentary. Murphy was later banned from Twitter in 2018 after deadnaming and repeatedly misgendering trans woman Jessica Yaniv. 

TERFs are by no means alone in responding to real or perceived limitations on their online speech by relocating to new platforms where they can set their own content-moderation policies. 

Former U.S. President Donald Trump, banned from Twitter and suspended from Facebook, recently announced his intention to found a social-media site of his own, TRUTH social. r/The_Donald lives on as thedonald.win. And prominent incel (that is, “involuntary celibate”) forum r/Incels moved to incels.co after being pushed off Reddit in 2017.

Indeed, with both public policy and corporate interests favouring increased oversight over content posted online, the migration of extremist digital communities to platforms tailor-made for their worldview is more than just a trend du jour. It’s the future of the internet.

That’s a problem.

Regulatory disaster

The Liberal government campaigned on a promise to curb digital hate of the sort that dominates the TERF alt-internet.

Canadians, for their part, have given every indication that this is a legislative priority they overwhelmingly support. Recent polling found that 76 per cent of Canadians want social media platforms to be legally accountable for the hateful and extremist content their users share. A similar number (75 per cent) want to see the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code amended to better protect Canadians from online abuse.

But such measures are likely too little, too late.

A case in point is Bill C-36, introduced to Parliament last summer and likely to be tabled again in the coming weeks.

The legislation would make it “a discriminatory practice” under the Canadian Human Rights Act to communicate hateful content in online contexts where that content “is likely to foment detestation or vilification of an individual or group on the basis of” their gender identity, gender expression, or other protected characteristic.

If passed, this amendment would empower the Canadian Human Rights Commission to penalize those who post hate speech online. But only if the Commission first receives a complaint—decidedly less likely if the people encountering that hate speech online are primarily or exclusively those who agree with it.

Which is exactly what is likely to happen as alternative internets like the one TERFs are building for themselves come into their own.

Consultation documents released before the September election suggest the Liberal government also intends to target “major platforms” like Facebook and Twitter for new regulations governing the removal of harmful content.

It’s doubtful those regulations will stamp out anti-trans posts on these sites, given the documented failures of existing content-moderation techniques to protect marginalized gender communities. What they are likely to do, instead, is further incentivize anti-trans activists to migrate to smaller platforms of their own making – making the echo in the echo chamber all the louder.

When a site like Reddit bans toxic digital communities, the members of those communities who move on to other spaces within the same platform tend to post substantially less hateful content – a reflection, it seems, of the moderating effect of being around less extreme users.

Those who move on to alternative platforms, by contrast, tend to produce more extreme content than before and to show more symptoms of radicalization.

This increase in toxicity would be less of a problem if the communities in question lost their ability to recruit, organize, and orchestrate offline acts post-migration. And to be sure, there is evidence that, in general, hate groups struggle to grow after being pushed off mainstream sites.

TERFs, however, are a likely exception to that rule.

Incels.co has relatively few newcomers when compared to its predecessor r/Incels. This makes sense given that potential recruits to the involuntary-celibate worldview are less likely to stumble across this online community now than they were when it was active on Reddit.

That’s simply not the case for TERFs.

Out, but not down

In Canada and elsewhere, trans-exclusionary radical feminists benefit from sustained, favourable mainstream media coverage; celebrity apologists like J.K. Rowling and Dave Chappelle; as well as a steady torrent of books and television specials disseminating their anti-trans ideology amongst the broader public.

Recruitment vehicles in their own right, these more than make up for TERFs’ inability to reach curious internet users via reddit threads or Twitter communities. And they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

This means that even if the government steps up to regulate anti-trans hate speech on the big sites, the even more toxic TERF alt-internet will still be only a transphobic comedy special and a quick internet search away from reaching new members.

For now, that hate speech and its potential to translate into offline harms seems here to stay.

Charlotte Dalwood

Charlotte Dalwood is a JD student at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Law. Her previous publications include articles in CBC News Online and the Edmonton Journal. Find her on Twitter @csdalwood.