Misogyny and 'Manosphere' Spreading To Playgrounds 'and Is a Terror Threat', Author Says

Children are being targeted online through chat rooms, memes and viral videos by groups that welcome extreme acts of violence against women and we should be far more worried about it than we are, says author and campaigner Laura Bates.

The founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, started in 2012 to collate women's experiences of sexism, spent months undercover in the darkest depths of the internet to lift a lid on the "manosphere", an online community made up of various sub-groups including men's rights activists, pick-up artists, incels or involuntary celibates who blame their lack of sexual activity on women, and MGTOWs, the "men going their own way" who have vowed to abandon all romantic relationships with women and believe society has been destroyed by feminism.

What Bates found disturbed her to the point where she is now calling for the manosphere to be considered a terrorist threat. She argues that society is dangerously underestimating the power and influence of these online groups, often incorrectly seen as a bunch of keyboard warriors spewing hate from the childhood bedrooms they haven't moved out of.

In reality, Bates warns their online ranks have expanded to hundreds of thousands of people across the U.S. and U.K., as well as Australia and Canada, and have inspired real-life acts of violence. In her new book, The Men Who Hate Women, Bates has linked more than 100 deaths or serious injuries among women in the last 10 years to extreme misogynist ideology.

"If we don't take violence against women seriously we are missing a massive red flag, a huge opportunity to prevent future terror attacks," Bates tells Newsweek. Most people will have heard of the Toronto van attack, she says, "but almost nobody would recognize that as a terrorist attack, motivated by extremist misogyny."

Canadian Alek Minassian, 28, killed 10 people by plowing a van into pedestrians in Toronto. After being arrested, Minassian told police he was angry at women and had planned the attack as retribution for years of being rejected. He also praised another "incel", Elliot Rodger, who killed six people in a 2014 rampage in California and is now venerated online by misogynist groups.

"For me, there is something very dangerous about that - if we have a hate movement that is causing people to go offline and massacre people in the name of extremism - of hatred - but nobody knows that it exists, then we can't tackle it or stop it," Bates says. "That goes for the general public, for parents, for teachers, but also for governments and counter-terror organizations who don't seem to have it on their radar at all."

Perhaps the most chilling aspect of her research, Bates says, was discovering that this online hatred of women was filtering down to children, with boys who have not long entered their teenage years denouncing feminism in school playgrounds across Britain.

Before COVID, Bates would visit around two schools a week in her work to teach children about gender equality. Previously, she says even pupils who were initially skeptical about sexism would engage in debate but over the last two years, there has been a shift. Suddenly boys were showing up to her sessions parroting the same myths and misconceptions she recognized from the many hours spent trawling online women-hating forums, using an undercover alter-ego, Alex. Some were as young as 12.

"Those conversations are often challenging and awkward and funny and tricky, talking about sexism, about sex, about porn, and about gender stereotypes," Bates says. "I think it's really important to encourage those conversations and to ask difficult questions, but what I started to notice was very different to that, it was a kind of indoctrination really," Bates says.

"I was meeting boys who were really hardened against their female peers, they were completely dehumanizing their female peers, they very much saw women as sex objects but they also really believed there was this feminist conspiracy at the heart of government that was killing and taking away the livelihoods of white men.

"It's a form of grooming. They would repeat the same quotes and the same completely false statistics that they had heard online. At schools across the country, suddenly boys were coming up with the statistic that '90% of rape allegations are false'. And at that point, there wasn't any room for discussion."

Bates says her research showed teenage boys were being "very deliberately targeted" by these online groups through bodybuilding forums, gaming strategy chat rooms, Instagram meme accounts and viral Youtube videos. "It's not as simple as saying these boys are all members of these communities," Bates says. "The communities are much better than that at reaching out and finding these boys and sucking them in."

There is another layer to the hatred young boys are being exposed to online. The link between misogyny and white supremacy is evident in these groups and it is not being properly addressed, Bates says. "When we talk about 'incels' and 'men's rights' and 'manosphere' groups, we miss out how inherently racist they are as well. Incels aren't only furious that women won't have sex with them, they are furious if women are having sex with Black men instead of them. It's all tied up together.

"Anti-feminism and misogyny are seen as a gateway to white supremacy and neo-Nazism. White supremacists have written about this, they have encouraged people to use misogyny as an 'easier sell'. They absolutely see it as a recruiting tool to then pull them further down the road towards white nationalism and they talk about using cultural touchpoints and memes and jokes to do it. They describe it as 'adding cherry flavor to children's medicine'."

From 2012 to April 2019, 2,200 people were referred to a part of the British government's counter-terrorism program called Channel, aimed at early targeting for vulnerable people likely to be approached. It makes up part of its wider Prevent strategy. Almost half of all people adopted as Channel cases in 2018/19 were referred for concerns related to far-right extremism, more than those who were referred for Islamist-related extremism.

There has also been a dramatic rise in the number of children being referred for possible involvement with the far-right. In 2017-18, 682 children were referred to Channel for this reason compared to 131 in 2014-15, according to Home Office figures obtained by Sky News. The total for 2017-18 includes 24 children under the age of 10.

The Good Lad Initiative runs workshops at British schools and universities to challenge toxic masculinity, gender stereotypes and "lad culture". Director Dan Guinness tells Newsweek that while on a basic level the ultimate aim is to prevent men raping women, the workshops attempt to discover the underlying issues that drive men towards adopting misogynist ideology. "Often these men feel insecure about who they are," he says. "There's a confusion about what their future role is going to be in an equal society and a real fear that there's nothing there for them."

Leaders of the initiative's workshops - much like Bates - have found an increase in boys at the schools they visit repeating worrying quotes they have picked up online. Guinness says: "Our school leaders said pupils would stop talking about their actual lived experiences and instead start repeating ideology they'd learned in a Reddit thread practically word-for-word."

Children in school playground in UK
Charities that work to teach gender equality in British schools have found increasing numbers of children repeating misogynistic views they have read online Matthew Lloyd/Getty

In its State of Hate report for 2020, anti-fascism campaign group Hope Not Hate found that traditional far-right groups are dwindling but "younger and more dangerous individuals" are now leading the spread of far-right extremism. The report states that sexual violence and misogyny "is becoming more prevalent, especially among younger extremists" and is "increasingly being driven by personalities and peer-to-peer online engagement". It said the government's counter-terror strategy is outdated and needs an urgent overhaul.

In both the U.S. and U.K., anti-terrorism strategies focus on far-right and Islamic extremism but do not pick up a link to misogyny. In reports of terrorist attacks, misogynist ideology is often not mentioned, even when attackers like Rodger or Minassian explicitly state it. Often, terrorist attackers have a history of domestic violence. This could be considered an "everyday" form of terrorism, Bates argues, but this is missed because domestic abuse is seen as "part of the normal wallpaper of our world," she says.

Bates found "very very little" is being done at a political level to address this. Only once has an "incel" who committed an act of violence or murder been charged as a terrorist. Police in Canada announced in May that a machete attack at a massage parlor was being treated as an act of terrorism after discovering evidence suggesting that it was motivated by violent misogyny. The suspect, who has not been named because he is a minor, was initially charged with first-degree and attempted murder but those charges were later upgraded to "murder – terrorist activity".

"Any time a man goes out and massacres women in the name of hating women, it should be seen as terrorism and they should be prosecuted as such," Bates says.

Since the publication of her book, just one member of the British government's anti-radicalization Prevent team has been in touch with Bates. In contrast, an overwhelming number of parents have contacted her with concerns about their teenage sons being radicalized by misogynists, but have discovered there isn't really any support.

So what can be done? "Preventing radicalization is much easier than de-radicalizing after it happens," Bates says. "We need to be encouraging young people to be suspicious of online sources, getting to young people early with education around gender and gender stereotypes and sexism and extremism but also just recognizing this for what it is as a first step. If we recognize it as an example of grooming, if it makes up part of the Prevent strategy as far-right and Islamist extremism does, parents and teachers can educate themselves in spotting the signs."

A U.K. government spokesperson tells Newsweek: "There should be no safe spaces online for terrorists to promote or share their extreme views and we will always look to protect vulnerable children and young people who may be targeted online by individuals spreading extremist right-wing or misogynistic views.

"Prevent continues to work with a range of partners to safeguard vulnerable people against extremist ideologies and the government is working with tech companies, law enforcement and our international partners to tackle the abhorrent exploitation of online platforms by terrorists."

Since 2010, over 310,000 individual pieces of terrorist content referred by the police Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit have been removed. During COVID, with increased online activity and feelings of stress and isolation opening children and young people up to exploitation, the government says it has been working closely with tech companies to ensure preventing terrorist use of their platforms continues to be a priority.

"Overall, we are confident that Facebook, Twitter, Google and Microsoft continue to focus their efforts on tackling terrorist activity and content," the spokesperson said.

The government will be launching a call for evidence for the new Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) Strategy, due to be published early next year. It says it will consider whether to include misogyny in the new strategy and "would welcome contributions from the public on this issue."

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