Conversations about online radicalisation and violence must broaden to include discussions about the patriarchy and violence against women
The recent mosque shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand has reignited a debate about the role internet platforms and subcultures play in promoting extremism and violence. Prior to his Islamophobic killing rampage, the shooter published a 74-page manifesto detailing his hateful ideology on the online forum 4chan. Additionally, he frequented an incel forum called Kiwi Farms, which has refused to turn over his user data to the New Zealand police to assist their investigation.
The UK’s counter-terrorism strategy, Prevent, monitors both far-right and Islamic extremism. However, one form of extremism that has failed to see similar counter-measures emerge, by both governments and social media companies, has been misogyny.
On the world wide web, there exists a “manosphere” or a host of online blogs and forums that reject narratives of gender inequality where women are seen as disenfranchised and instead argue that it is men who are the real victims, made even more so by the advent of modern feminism. The “manosphere” is often teeming with extreme misogynistic beliefs and at times promotes violence against women with very real consequences.
One group within the “manosphere” that has received extensive media coverage has been the incels. Incel is a term that stands for involuntary celibate, referring to those who desire a romantic or sexual relationship but are unable to attain one. Incels began to receive greater scrutiny in 2014 when 22-year old Elliot Rodger embarked on a killing spree in Isla Vista, Santa Barbara to punish women for rejecting him as well as men who did not experience the same frustrations that he did. He wrote a manifesto to vent his frustrations and since then, has inspired a host of other incels. For example, Alek Minassian, who drove a van into pedestrians in Toronto, Canada in 2018, self-identified as an incel on Facebook prior to the attack and cited Elliot Rodger as an inspiration. Rodger’s actions continue to be lauded on incel forums, such as particular subreddit threads on Reddit, where individuals can be found referring to their desire to “go ER” when discussing interactions with women that upset them.
Interestingly, the incel community was not always like this. Its origins lie in Alana’s Involuntary Celibate Project, a project initiated by a young Canadian student Alana (who prefers to go only by her first name). It originally began as an online forum and safe space to discuss sexual inactivity and loneliness, as well as the mental illness, lack of confidence and social anxiety that can feed into them. What began as a bid for greater inclusivity, representation and community appeared to become co-opted over time by a demographic of young, white men who utilised these forums as an outlet for their often violent misogyny. Alana has expressed regret at this development, likening it to being like a “scientist who figured out nuclear fission and then discovers its being used as a weapon for war.” Individuals start off discussing their life experiences with others, offering sympathy and venting their frustrations on incel forums, but end up consumed by a sense of victimhood that quickly takes on violent tones. It’s not uncommon to find rape or death threats against women littered throughout incel forums. Indeed, Keegan Hankes, a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama, notes that incel forums tend to invoke more violence than even white supremacist sites, and that message boards can play a significant role in the radicalisation of incels.
What role does misogyny play in creating this sense of victimhood of incels exactly? Misogyny forces the incel to view women as the cause and target of his frustration, rather than the patriarchal system that contributes to his fraught sense of masculinity and isolation. One important aspect of incel ideology is that they view “early carnal knowledge as necessary to proper maturation” and view a lack of it as responsible for their loneliness in the present. Incels, therefore, are lashing out against girls and women who have (in their eyes) picked other men over them in their teenagehood and denied them this development, which they believe is sabotaging them in the present. They are grieving a loss of access to women, especially women untainted by previous partners, because they believe they have been overlooked in favour of a more attractive man, or a ‘Chad.’ These mindsets encourage feelings of hopelessness while also nurturing an intense hatred towards women that is often retaliatory in nature. The incel movement is a movement about male sexuality that centres the conversation on women’s sexuality – viewing women and girls as sexual objects for their gratification, shaming them for who they sleep with and who they do not, and punishing them for their sexual choices.
That is what makes incel forums such a fascinating part of the internet, one which we cannot entirely disentangle from other extremist forums and the rise of neo-fascism. Incels, as mentioned, do not see their feelings of isolation and loneliness as a result of patriarchy, of toxic masculinity that has fed them harmful narratives about male sexuality. Instead, they begin to see themselves as victims at the hands of women. This is a phenomenon known as “aggrieved entitlement,” whereby a typically-privileged group, in this context men within patriarchal society, is partially denied their expected privileges. This has important parallels with the sense of victimhood that white supremacists propagate among themselves to justify their desire to purify society and expel difference. Although there incels from ethnic minority backgrounds, the majority are white men and the link between this world view and far-right, white supremacist rhetoric is well-documented. For example, Elliott Rodgers wrote about the inferiority of black men and his frustration when white women chose black men over him. Many incels perceive of this as a ‘cuckholding’ and a denial of access for something that is rightfully theirs, namely, white women.It is therefore important to see the parallels between incels and other forms of hateful speech.
Regardless of the ideology or subculture an individual is indoctrinated into, these online communities are more interlinked than previously imagined. Hankes notes that many individuals in the groups the Southern Poverty Law Center typically tracks, such as white nationalists and neo-Nazis, were actually recruited and groomed through male supremacist groups, such as incel forums. It appears to work the other way as well – journalist David Futrelle attributes increasingly violent rhetoric on incel forums to the growth of the alt-right. “These online communities didn’t use to be so violently misogynistic and obsessed with violence as they are now,” he notes. Hate of one sort appears to breed hate in other areas as well, complicating our fight against online radicalisation and extremism.
In addition to circulating through similar processes, the rise of white supremacy in the political landscape has paved the way for more open expressions of hatred and the political normalisation of violence, emboldening incels and other “manosphere” users to raise their voices. Influential figures from the “manosphere” have even managed to infiltrate the public sphere and propagate their beliefs. For example, Steve Bannon, the executive chairman of one of the most popular “manosphere” media outlets, Breitbart, was formerly appointed Chief Strategist for US President Donald Trump.
We often discuss how perceived oppression motivates disenfranchised white communities to engage in white supremacist or neo-fascist politics, but it’s time we looked into how other forms of perceived victimhood are nurtured – forms that may fuel equally dangerous, violent rhetoric.
Given the complex nature of the problem, where do we begin with addressing the influence of these violent, misogynistic ideologies?
Social media giants such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have received a lot of criticism recently for their inability and unwillingness to crack down more firmly on hate speech. For example, YouTube has received criticism following the Christchurch attacks after YouTube user Pewdiepie was cited as an inspiration for the mosque shootings. Furthermore, it has been noted that YouTube’s recommendation algorithms can lead one to radical content very easily, even if one isn’t necessarily seeking it, speeding up the process by which radicalisation occurs instead of slowing it down.
With misogynistic hate speech in particular, such as that propagated on incel forums, the problem is even worse. Major platforms have been stepping up their efforts to fight hate speech in response to criticism, but misogyny on major platforms continues to “get a pass” in ways that other hateful forms of speech do not. Hankes notes that this happens because “a lot of misogyny tends to fall under this umbrella of being politically incorrect, so for some reason, it gets less enforcement.” Ludovica Di Giorgi, an expert in online radicalism, notes that as of yet, there is no “comprehensive policy in place for addressing other forms of online extremism, such as radical misogyny.”
The body count of the incel movement might not be as high as Islamic or far-right extremism as of yet, but misogyny has enacted violence upon the bodies of women throughout the world and the incel mindset, in many cases, is deeply interlinked with far-right extremism. We have a responsibility to stop these alarming narratives before they become normalised. As mentioned, “manosphere” platforms like incel forums are important recruitment grounds for other forms of extremism and perhaps a more critical look into these corners of the internet can help us better understand the alt-right movement and its extremism as well.
As a women’s charity that has undertaken important counter-extremism work, this issue is important to us. We have embarked on the Another Way Forward Project, in which we educated teenage girls on both Islamic and far-right extremism, and equipped them with the confidence and skills to fight against extremism and hate speech in their schools and online networks. This deradicalisation work needs to continue and become more complex. Among incel forums, some experts have noted a trend of “normies” (the incel term for average people) infiltrating these hateful spaces in order to convince damaged users to “seek out the professional help they so sorely need to sort through their deep resentments and build up a healthy self-esteem.”
Clearly the entire onus cannot entirely be on others to deradicalise those seized by hate, and social media networks need to step up their efforts to take away the platform for radicalisation and the spread of these ideologies. Yet JAN Trust believes that these promising trends offer us a little glimmer of hope by showing us one of the ways in which we can begin to start addressing this issue – by taking all forms of extremism and hate speech seriously, and by understanding the violence of misogyny.