Incels Uncovered: A Look Inside the Misogynistic Online Community

An anonymous online community has recently been thrust into the mainstream. So-called 'incels' are men who claim to be involuntarily celibate, as they struggle to have sex or relationships with women.

The incel community gathers on anonymous online forums such as Reddit and 4Chan. Some incels use dehumanizing language that reduces women to 'femoids,' and users deplore women for having sex or relationships with attractive men known as 'Chads'.

Some users come to the community with low self-esteem and mental health issues and are looking for similar people, but a number of attacks have recently been committed in their name.

On May 23, 2014, Elliot Rodger killed 6 people in Isla Vista, California. He posted a manifesto and numerous videos online beforehand, blaming women for his lack of intimate relationships and threatening violence against those who had rejected him. After the attack, it was discovered that Rodger had frequently posted in the subreddit Pick Up Artist Hate—a forum that is closely related to incels.

Then, in April 2018, Alek Minassian killed 10 people in Toronto. Beforehand he posted a message on Facebook referencing incels and 'Sgt 4Chan.'

Five months prior to the second attack the main subreddit for incels was banned from Reddit. Almost immediately a new site not hosted on Reddit, called Incels.me, appeared. Many incels, including one man called Jack Peterson, moved across to this website to continue posting online and communicating with other incels.

Incels Banned Reddit
/r/Incels subreddit was banned in November 2017. Credit: Reddit. Reddit

Peterson first heard the term 'incel' on the site 4chan and immediately felt as though it applied to him. He frequently browsed and engaged with incel subforums and after Minassian killed 10 people in Toronto van attack, Peterson became an unofficial spokesperson for incels. Shortly after the attack, and after the huge amount of attention he got from being associated with incels, Peterson publicly stepped away from the community and announced that he would no longer identify as an incel.

Peterson told Newsweek that the sense of belonging within the community, where users may not necessarily feel like they belong elsewhere, was a big draw.

He used the forums to vent about his past experiences with mental illness and lack of relationships with women, but some users express misogynistic views about women and even threaten violence.

"For a pretty long time I just kind of saw it as, and even to an extent I still think this is true, a lot of it is people using extremely dark humor and irony they use that as a way to vent for a shock value," says Peterson.

"I would say there's definitely a subset of people in the groups who genuinely believe that stuff but probably a lot of it is just you know just people just saying whatever they can just to get a reaction out of people."

Joan Donovan, an expert at the Data and Society Research Institute, tells Newsweek how difficult it is to know when something is a real threat versus someone either being ironic or sarcastic.

She says: "Unless you are paying a lot of attention over time to how conversations play out in certain online forums, it's very difficult to know when something is a real threat that is someone saying, 'Oh man I hate my job I wish everybody there would die' versus really saying 'I work at X, Y and Z place and tomorrow I plan on doing X, Y and Z' which is these moments that police and researchers start to weigh as when does a threat start to seem more real than just someone complaining."

"When we talk about online radicalization it's really about this process of identification of these issues that people go through, where then they get validated and then they come to commit some kind of atrocity."

There is also a culture of helplessness within the community, known as being 'black-pilled,' where people feel like their situation is out of their hands and there is nothing they can do to change it. Users blame their genetics such as height and canthal tilt on why they cannot form relationships with women. Some incels encourage people to seek surgery or become a 'gymcel' and work out to gain a muscular figure.

Donovan stresses that internet anonymity is a good thing, and can help a lot of people who want to ask questions online without being identified, as well as provide a space for those whose who want to hold powerful people to account.

But the danger with online anonymity comes when these conversations turn toxic, and there is no way to moderate that.

Donovan said: "You tend to navigate towards people that have similar interests, that are suffering from similar pains as you and there is a good space for you to talk it out.

"What becomes dangerous in these spaces is that there is no way to flag or moderate that these conversations have turned toxic, and when people are very vulnerable and they're getting responded to by people who are trying to instrumentalize them, or radicalize them towards specific actions that's when things get very dangerous.

"So it isn't just that they're going and being comforted by the conversation, there are other people acting as recruiters in these spaces, and it is through this engagement process that people become more and more accepting of violence."

Donovan says: "Unfortunately the way the internet is designed it's very decentralized and therefore there are lots of unregulated and unmoderated spaces where we find the most hate and misogyny and extremism."

Months after the media attention has calmed down, the remaining incel subreddit 'Braincels' is steadily gaining more subscribers (currently over 40,000), and incels continue to use to other sites.

In the modern world where disaffected people have access to internet forums and anonymity online, the question remains of how online radicalization and violent misogyny can be prevented.

Incels Uncovered: A Look Inside the Misogynistic Online Community | Tech & Science