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.
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