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Communities and Web 2.0

Incels: How Online Communities Can Create Pathways to Self-Radicalisation

Abstract: Technological transformations have allowed the practice of community to shift to online spaces. The many affordances of this such as access to diverse information and resources online communities can provide escape from constraints surrounding kinship, location, and occupation can counter tendencies to form intolerant communities. However, the Incel community online is an example of how the formation of insular and ideologically homogenous communities can still occur in online spaces. Incel’s perform their misogynistic ideology in online spaces and form homophillic bonds with other Incels. This community demonstrates how a combination of lonely individuals seeking support and belonging online and ideologically driven radical communities in online spaces can culminate in acts of networked harassment and lead to self-radicalisation. Self-radicalisation of individuals online has led to acts of extremist violence in physical spaces that have resulted in the deaths of many. While there have been attempts to de-platform these communities, the underlying systemic issues regarding access to sufficient mental health and productive support networks must be addressed in order to counter the issue of self-radicalisation.

Tags: online communities, self-radicalisation, Incels, communities and web 2.0

Technological advances have historically played a hand in guiding changes in the way we practice community (Hampton, 2015). Just like the shift from villages to urbanisation and increased mobility, the ubiquity of the internet and social networking tools are ushering us into a period of change. Community can now be practiced online where it is not confined by time or distance, allowing access to more diverse resources and information and a reprieve from the constraints of insular communities bound by kinship, location, and occupation. Scholars have suggested that this will transform the way people form and maintain relationships, gain access information, and seek support, which will in turn combat past tendencies for the formation of intolerant communities confined by echo chambers and filter bubbles (Hampton & Wellman, 2018, p. 647). While this may be true, there are many examples contradicting these observations. The online community of self-identified “Incels” is an example of how the affordances of online communication that are touted to build more tolerant communities can allow for centres of intolerance. Incels have also been associated with acts of group harassment online and acts of ‘lone wolf terrorism’ in physical spaces, making them not just intolerant but dangerous. The Incel community is an example of how online spaces can foster harassment and self-radicalisation leading to extremist violence by enabling the formation of communities founded upon dangerous ideologies.

The Incel community is founded upon misogynistic ideologies that blame women for their personal relationship issues. It is associated with a broader set of loosely linked misogynistic communities online called the ‘Manosphere’. The term ‘incel’, refers to ‘involuntary celibacy’. Self-ascribed Incel’s base their identity around their frustration of a lack of sexual experience, posting extremely misogynistic and disturbed idea’s as to why this is so. The community primarily consists of white, heterosexual, males who feel they experience unfulfilling sexual relationships and express troubles finding lovers, many being self-identified virgins. They collectively channel their unhappiness into a misogynistic subculture defined by a hatred of women. They believe physical appearance can be quantitively and objectively measured by using a ranking system out of 10 and that everyone has an objective ‘looks match’, for example a ‘5/10 man’ should be with a ‘5/10 woman’ (ContraPoints, 2018, August 18). Their limited sexual opportunities is thus framed as women limiting their attraction of men to superficial attributes such as wealth and physical appearance (Maxwell et al., 2020). Thus, disregarding their ‘looks match’, disrupting the ordained system they have prescribed, leaving them alone. They believe it is their right to sex with women and that the rejection they face is unjust and can be blamed on women. The Incel community blames women for their lack of fulfilling sexual relationships, creating a community built upon misogynistic ideology.

Development of a common vocabulary is a key element in the formation of online community (Grudz & Takhteyev, 2011) and the language of Incels reflects and reinforces violent and misogynistic values. Incels have shorthand for a myriad of terms which are commonly used within the community and can be a distinct signifier across online spaces and span a variety of topics including language about women, men, themselves, and self-harm. The ‘Stacy’ is an archetype that acts as an anchor for misogynistic and angry thoughts regarding women. ‘Stacy” is a ‘10/10’ on the previously mentioned looks scale, she has large breasts and blonde hair in appearance and is shallow, materialistic, and selfish. She is typically interested in men for superficial reasons such as excess wealth and conventional attractiveness (Maxwell et al., 2020). She is typically drawn to a “Chad”. Chad is strong, dumb, physically fit and born with inherently superior facial structure. ‘Chad’ is emblematic of masculinity that Incels believe women want. Chad is a vehicle for envy but also hatred, Incels are jealous that he can ‘obtain’ women but resent him as they see him as undeserving. ‘Femoid’ is an impersonable and dehumanising moniker for “female”. ‘Bonesmashing’ (ContraPoints, 2018, August 18) is the act of beating ones face to manually change the structure and shape of their bones, a severe act of self-harm. Roping is a term used to describe the act of suicide, and is commonly brought up as a result of feeling hopeless. The common vocabulary adopted by the Incel community reinforces misogynistic ideology and normalises acts of violence and self harm.

To understand how online spaces can foster such communities it is important to examine the individuals that are drawn to these communities. ‘Incel’ is a portmanteau of the words ‘involuntary celibate’, referring to individuals who desire sexual relationships but are unable to “non-conventional attractiveness, social anxiety, or lack of physical resources” (Burgess et al., 2001, p. 159). This was initially a concept in sex research which looked more towards involuntarily celibacy in married couples, people with chronic illness or disabilities, and the elderly, (Burgess et al., 2001) with an additional focus on teenage or young adult virgins. Interestingly, for the young adults, lack of sexual experience at transitional points in adolescence is a recurring trend and that traditional gender roles definitely come to play, as many males report being too shy or nervous to initiate, and females report lack if initiation on behalf of men. Additionally, shyness and social aptitude played a large role, with 94% of virgins claim shyness to be the largest barrier of sexual relationships. Thus, young male Incels are likely to be shy and more socially unequipped than their peers, and may feel that they lack conventional attractiveness, all which contribute to feeling lonely, isolated, inadequate, and rejected.

Online spaces allow for incidences of collective action motivated by misogynistic ideologies. The structure of online community will transformed the practices of collective action, public opinion, political participation (Hampton, 2015, p. 103). Incels have taken part in widescale networked harassment of women online (Marwick & Caplan, 2018). In 2014 two ‘flashpoint events’ known as #GamerGate and, the unfortunately titled, “The Fappening” occurred (Massanari, 2015). The former was a movement in which men’s rights activists engaged in continued online harassment of feminists and female video game critics and developers (Marwick & Caplan, 2018). The latter was an incident in which nude photographs of female celebrities were illegally obtained and distributed via Reddit.com and 4Chan image boards (Ging, 2019). These events are both examples of collective action and ‘political participation’ as the perpetrators believed it was their right to do these things in an act against misandry and oppression of men (Ging, 2019). However, these acts of collective action and political participation were indeed harassment and violation of the targets privacy.

Acts of ‘lone wolf terrorism’ and extremist violence have been linked with members of the Incel community and indicate self-radicalisation. The first notable incident was the Isla Vista Massacre in 2014 in which a man killed 6 people, himself, and injured 14  others (Papadamou et al., 2020). Prior to the incident the perpetrator uploaded a video to YouTube claiming he wanted to punish women for rejecting him and sexually active men out of envy and spite. The perpetrator was proven to be a self-identified ‘Incel’ and to be subscribed to many various aspects of the ‘manosphere’ such as pick up artist channels. Since this event the number of recorded deaths at the hands of self-radicalised Incels is nearing 50 (Hoffman et al., 2020). These attacks are targeted to locations that are likely to be populated by women, and are often prefaced with text posts or YouTube videos outlining manifestos detailing their unfair mistreatment and rejection from women (Hoffman et al., 2020).When acts of extremist violent are associated with a community, it becomes necessary to examine the reasons that these are occurring.

Formation of echo chambers in online communities can contribute to the process of self-radicalisation, however agency of the individual must not be overlooked. Persistent and pervasive awareness of members of one’s social network increases awareness of people’s opinions and beliefs unlike past communication technologies. Dissonance in opinions and beliefs of social ties can result in homophily (Hampton & Wellman, 2018, p. 648). This tendency towards homophily combined with the tendency for online communities to naturally centre themselves around shared interests, protocols, and norms (Porter, 2015, p. 162) can cause communities online to mirror the structure of dense localised communities. Within the Incel community we can see a high conformity of beliefs and backgrounds which are amplified through interactions within the community, creating echo chambers. The difference between online echo-chambers and pre-internet echo chambers is that online echo-chambers are self-subscribed. Individuals are not confined to them and operate within these spaces. While there is conflicting evidence regarding the truth to ‘echo chamber’ and ‘filter bubbles’ online (Dubois & Blank, 2018), this seems to be mostly relevant regarding peoples search for information. However, Incels initially are generally seeking emotional support and a sense of community when they enter these spaces, not necessarily information. It is therefore not being suggested that they are not coming in contact with diverse information, but that the community is based around. It is not a matter of what information is available, but what one might gain emotionally from believing it. Thus, while echo chambers and filter bubbles play a role in circulation of information that reinforces dangerous ideologies, individual agency also plays a role.

A desire for meaningful social relationships and a sense of belongingness motivate individual engagement in the Incel community and plays a role in self-radicalisation. Incel’s feel isolated socially which is deepened by low self-esteem. One can conclude that a significant motivator for community engagement is a desire for meaningful relationships, belong to a space where their contributions are respected by other community members, and expressions of self-identity to be gratified by emotional connections with others within the community (Porter, 2015). Incel’s seek emotional support from their community, and other Incels respond by validating their feelings of isolation and offering an inherent understanding that they do not experience in their connections in the physical world. Vulnerability to radicalisation is more common in those with feelings of hopelessness, depression, and loneliness. When their needs for support and relationships are met by a particular group, they are more likely to engage in behaviour that will reinforce those bonds and relationships. Thus, if an individual is entering these spaces to find support and their needs for support are met, they might be inclined to follow the ‘status quo’ and take on new beliefs if they were not already existing.  

The process of self-radicalisation online can be likened to the process of radicalisation in physical spaces. Often the first stage in in radicalisation is the destabilisation of the individuals world view and sense of themselves (Blakemore & Awan, 2012), this is evident in the red pill philosophy, proposing the opportunity to learn the ‘truth’ and the alternative being ignorance to this knowledge that they hold. Radicalist organisations claim to have answers to unknown questions that cause psychological stress and angst. The ‘Manospheres’ solution to men feeling so alone and upset is clear, it is society that is wrong, women are misandrists and only want men who are attractive and it is these men that have to suffer as a result of a corrupt system. They offer ‘simple’ solutions to the questions that cause them such unhappiness. Cults also rely on the isolation of individuals from friends and family (Blakemore & Awan, 2012), as established Incels often feel like they don’t have a lot of these to begin with and by encouraging severe and negative thought patterns about the world and everyone within it, it almost inevitable you are going to lose connection with the few people left in their lives. The final step is ‘desensitisation’, which occurs over a prolonged period of exposure which results in the inductee slowly rewiring their understanding of the world to be that the community is always right and those who disagree are wrong. Again, this is so clearly shown in the ‘red pill’ ideology, which denotes that there is a truth and there is ignorance, and truth can only be known within the community.

There have been some measures taken in hopes to de-escalate the current situation regarding the rise of radicalisation. Several platforms have taken measures to de-platform the Incel community in wake of continuing radicalisation. Reddit removed some of the larger subreddits such as r/Incels in 2017 (Fingas, 2017). Other platforms such as 8chan have had a more tumultuous history. Cloudflare, a website security company, has faced criticism in the past for protecting sites which were used a backdrop for organisation of radicalism, for example 8chan and The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi message board site. After the Christchurch massacre, Cloudflare eventually dropped support to The Daily Stormer and 8chan, no longer providing them protection against DDoS attacks (McCarthy, 2019). While there is no way to completely de-platform them,  the lack of DDoS protection allows for vigilante hackers to make it difficult by barring their sites with DDoS attacks.

While de-platforming and closer monitoring of online forums needs to take place, it feels as though this is just placing a band-aid on a much larger wound. While the affordances of technology allow the rapid spread and organisation of these groups, the reason many are so easily drawn into the folds is a much wider public health issue surrounding mental illness. While it may not be news that patriarchal society is detrimental in many ways, it is clear within these individuals that they dealing with psychological pains and do not have the cognitive tool belt required to deal with these emotions of loneliness, isolation, and depression in the appropriate ways. It is imperative to have adequate education regarding healthy relationships and their dynamics at young ages, as well as sufficient mental health services to support those with these concerns (Maxwell et al., 2020). And ideally, a societal shift in the way men are expected to be and behave, men need to be able to feel comfortable to talk about their feelings and not made to feel small and emasculated for it. Half of the appeal of these groups is a way to connect and share deep feelings of hopelessness. Mental health support is also a necessity for successful deradicalization.

While in passing it can seem as though this community is just an immature subsection of the internet that act mostly as misogynistic ‘trolls’, there is something much darker lurking beneath that. From misogynistic views on women that culminates in online harassment such as #GamerGate, to acts of extremist violence causing the loss of many lives and the injury of many others, we can see that there is potential for further harm if these sorts of behaviours are ignored. While there have been some attempts to counteract the technological affordances that allow these communities to organise and spread their ideology, there is still the larger issues regarding the reasons that men are drawn to this. Social norms that have resulted in men feeling emotionally unexpressed and poor mental health resources and toolkits have led them to find solace for their angst online in vulnerable emotional states. In these states individuals are prone to seek out community, but when in the community they find are people with radical ideological aims some can be led to self-radicalise. Steps need to be taken to introduce better education regarding mental health and healthy relationships as well as proper measures taken to de-platform dangerous communities.

REFERENCES

Blakemore, B., & Awan, I. (2012). Policing Cyber Hate, Cyber Threats and Cyber Terrorism. Taylor & Francis Group. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/curtin/detail.action?docID=4512562

Burgess, E. O., Donnelly, D., Dillard, J., & Davis, R. (2001, 2001/09/01). Surfing for sex: Studying involuntary celibacy using the internet. Sexuality and Culture, 5(3), 5-30. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12119-001-1028-x

ContraPoints. (2018, August 18). Incels | Contrapoints [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fD2briZ6fB0

Dubois, E., & Blank, G. (2018, 2018/05/04). The echo chamber is overstated: the moderating effect of political interest and diverse media. Information, Communication & Society, 21(5), 729-745. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2018.1428656

Fingas, J. (2017). Reddit bans misogynist community as part of anti-violence crackdown.

Ging, D. (2019). Alphas, Betas, and Incels: Theorizing the Masculinities of the Manosphere. Men and Masculinities, 22(4), 638-657. https://doi.org/10.1177/1097184X17706401

Grudz, A. W., B., & Takhteyev, Y. (2011, 2011). Imagining Twitter as an Imagined Community. American Behavioral Scientist, 55(10). https://www.dhi.ac.uk/san/waysofbeing/data/communities-murphy-gruzd-2011.pdf

Hampton, K. N. (2015, 2016-01). Persistent and Pervasive Community. American Behavioral Scientist, 60(1), 101-124. https://doi.org/10.1177/0002764215601714

Hampton, K. N., & Wellman, B. (2018, 2018-11). Lost and Saved . . . Again: The Moral Panic about the Loss of Community Takes Hold of Social Media. Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews, 47(6), 643-651. https://doi.org/10.1177/0094306118805415

Hoffman, B., Ware, J., & Shapiro, E. (2020). Assessing the Threat of Incel Violence. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 1-23. https://doi.org/10.1080/1057610X.2020.1751459

Marwick, A. E., & Caplan, R. (2018, 2018/07/04). Drinking male tears: language, the manosphere, and networked harassment. Feminist Media Studies, 18(4), 543-559. https://doi.org/10.1080/14680777.2018.1450568

Massanari, A. (2015, 2017/03/01). #Gamergate and The Fappening: How Reddit’s algorithm, governance, and culture support toxic technocultures. New Media & Society, 19(3), 329-346. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444815608807

Maxwell, D., Robinson, S. R., Williams, J. R., & Keaton, C. (2020, 2020/03/25). “A Short Story of a Lonely Guy”: A Qualitative Thematic Analysis of Involuntary Celibacy Using Reddit. Sexuality & Culture. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12119-020-09724-6

McCarthy, S. (2019). Cloudflare Ends 8Chan Service in Wake of Recent US Shootings.

Papadamou, K., Zannettou, S., Blackburn, J., De Cristofaro, E., Stringhini, G., & Sirivianos, M. (2020). Understanding the Incel Community on YouTube.

Porter, C. E. (2015). Virtual communities and social networks. In J. A. Danowski & L. Cantoni (Eds.), (pp. 161-179). De Gruyter Mouton.

7 replies on “Incels: How Online Communities Can Create Pathways to Self-Radicalisation”

Hi Lullaki, this is a thought-provoking paper on Incels, and while I can’t say this is an “enjoyable” topic, it is certainly one that is significant. Thank you for highlighting this issue in your paper! I notice you mention a number of different platforms that seem to attract Incel communities. Did you find in your research that particular platforms seemed to support this “movement” or is it easy to find Incel groups on most popular online platforms? Once again, this was an interesting contribution – good luck for the rest of your conference!

Hi Deepti, thank you for reading it and thank you for your comments. It was a bit of a tough topic to delve into as it is quite disconcerting in content, but also uncomfortable to try and understand what might motivate these kinds of actions and to be empathetic without excusing their actions.

Yes actually, there seemed to be some linking factors between the platforms that support these sorts of “movements” but not a lot of analysis on what about these platforms fosters the growth of such behaviours. I have noticed that the combination of anonymous/semi anonymous user identity, message boards being divided by topic, and meme culture seemed to be a common and contributing factor.

The nature of 4chan and 8chan is that they the users interact anonymously or with pseudonyms. Reddit does require you to have an account to post or comment, but most reddit usernames are pseudonyms and do not indicate a persons offline identity. Van der Nagel and Frith (2015) discuss some of the intricacies of anonymity on reddit in their article regard the “r/gonewild” subreddit. I believe that by being situated on the anonymous end of the identity spectrum allows communicate with less shyness, which could be alluring to people who struggle with interpersonal contact due to fear of rejection or alienation.

These sites also facilitate discussion through message boards or topic driven “subreddits”, allowing people to communicate on specific topics. While this is a good thing for many reasons I feel it is also one of the reasons these communities have a tendency towards homophily and echochamber-like communication, as there is not a lot of opportunity for differing opinions in daily conversation.

Finally, these sites often are used as a way of sharing memes. Luke Munn (2019) touches on the role of meme’s and the collapse of boundary between trolls and extremist behaviour in the context of the alt-right movement. Since the Incel community has a similar pattern and overlap of membership I think Munn’s theory that things start off as ‘ironic’ or ‘dark humour’ then just become ‘humour’ and the just become normalised is quite applicable to this context as well. Perhaps some self deprecating jokes about ones appearance can then warp into the normalisation of things such as “bone smashing”.

Sources Mentioned:
Munn, L. (2019). Alt-right pipeline: Individual journeys to extremism online. First Monday, 24(6). https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v24i6.10108

van der Nagel, E., & Frith, J. (2015). Anonymity, pseudonymity, and the agency of online identity: Examining the social practices of r/Gonewild. First Monday, 20(3). https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v20i3.5615

Hi Lullaki,
I really appreciate your interesting topic choice and your willingness to explore the Incel community! Prior to reading your paper, I was not very familiar with the idea of an Incel nor knew much about their online communities.

Whilst incredibly troubling, I thought you made a great point which didn’t cross my mind which is the language and vocabulary used in these online communities. For example, the archetypes of ‘Stacy’ and ‘Chad’ to characterise certain types of people in the world but are predominantly used/understood within the Incel community seems like it is very much their ‘language’ and ‘if you know, you know’.

I completely agree that the internet and these online forums need better policing and oversight which only acts as a “band-aid on a much larger wound.” The mysogynistic, sexist and patriarchal entitlement underlying these communities are damaging and disturbing. You mentioned mental health and education at a young age as potential solutions, are there any other avenues that you know of currently? Do you think there is a way to help those currently in these communities or does the freedom and fluidity of the online space make it difficult to ‘single out’ and identify these members to get help – where getting help would have to be their personal want since they can’t be forced?

I wrote my paper about the different ways people perform and present their identities on Instagram depending on their audience. I would appreciate if you gave it a read and comment 🙂 https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2020Curtin/2020/05/11/communication-and-collaboration-through-web-2-0-affordances-on-virtual-online-communities-for-expression-of-identity-performance-of-identity-on-instagram/

Thanks,
Amy

Hi Amy,

Thank you for reading my paper and for your kind words, I am glad you were able to learn some new things from my paper.

You have asked some very interesting and thought provoking questions in regards to what resources currently exist for people who may be part of or becoming part of this kind of community. I am currently not aware of anything official, however I have noticed a trend within the last perhaps 12 months of people who claim to be “ex-incels” or “ex-alt right” members. I think that by voicing their experiences and understanding those who fall into these situations can be quite helpful in de-radicalisation or preventative measures. I think a big factor is that a lot of people are very reactionary to Incels, rightfully so, because its so difficult to understand how someone could possess such warped ideas. In the Contrapoint’s video on Incel’s she says a phrase that sort of stuck with me which was along the lines of “It’s important to meet people where they are” instead of secluding them further into their echochambers. Thus I feel that people who have already gotten themselves out of these communities, are better able to meet these people “where they are”, as they’ve been there. But in regards to official services, unfortunately there aren’t a lot of handbooks or guides. Even in similar contexts such as cult indoctrination, a lot of treatment is individual focused and requires effort on the person themselves to find resources such as new support networks and therapy. I think that’s what’s so interesting about “self-radicalisation” online, it is the individuals choice, but their choices can be guided by feelings and emotions they don’t understand properly.

I’ll be sure to take a look at your paper! Identity and community on instagram is such a relevant topic at the moment so I am very keen to see what you have put together.

Hey Lullaki,
Thanks for your response! You made a good point comparing those who are “ex-incels”/“ex-alt right” to those who have left cults. I have watched some Ted Talks by people who have left/escaped cults themselves who didn’t ‘realise’ the world around them as as you said have used therapy and support networks as healing.

Best,
Amy

Hi Lullaki

Thank you for linking me to your paper. It was very interesting and insightful! The web 2.0 encourages participatory culture and community formation and you clearly demonstrated that it is not always a good thing. I agree Incel is a very toxic community and the online forums that they use, need to better their policy and place restrictions. I also like that you mention education as a solution . However, there are online activists who are standing up against Incel and their misogynistic beliefs. Do you think that they can actually have an impact on the situation? For instance, during the #GamerGate, there were a lot of feminists who join the conversation and showed their support online.

Hi Lullaki,

I loved this paper! Thank you for linking it to me.

I also wrote my paper on Incels. Therefore, it was incredibly interesting to read a paper on the same topic that offered a slightly different commentary.

You raised such a great point in your conclusion, why are men still drawn to this community? This is not something I delved too deeply into in my own paper. I agree completely with your argument, social norms and internalising their feelings have resulted in men finding solace in online communities. While some of these communities can have resoundingly positive effects, the Incel community is particularly insidious one.

While misogyny and hatred towards women have existed since the dawn of time, I think it is interesting to note that this particular community did not exist until the advent of Web 2.0. Why do you think this is? What features of Web 2.0 allow these groups to flourish in an online capacity?

Great read!

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