A long-time journalist, David Futrelle studies the online male supremacist movement on his blog. His writings have appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post.
When I learned that the suspect in the Toronto van attack had apparently posted a Facebook message identifying himself as a foot soldier in what he called the “incel rebellion,” I was saddened but not at all surprised. As the keeper of a blog devoted to tracking the culture of misogyny online, I have been watching the “incel” subculture for seven years – and I find its rise in the past several years to be nearly as disturbing as the recent rebirth of the neo-Nazi right.
Incel, as many Canadians have learned this past week, is short for “involuntary celibate,” and is the preferred moniker of a number of mostly young men united by a shared bitterness over their inability to persuade women to sleep with them. They let this fact define their entire lives, and devote much of their time online lashing out at the women who don’t want them – and picking over the supposed flaws in their own appearances that they think render them forever unlovable.
When you combine this sort of anger and self-pity, you often get violence. Four years ago, a man named Elliot Rodger murdered six in Isla Vista, Calif., in an attempt, as he explained in the 137-page manifesto he left behind, to take his “retribution” against women. Incels have embraced “Saint Elliot’” as a martyr and role model – and so, evidently, did Alek Minassian, who hailed “the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger” in his Facebook post.
So is there any way we can prevent more tragedies such as this?
Remarkably, there have been some very patient “normies” – that’s how incels deem average people – who have waded into these hateful spaces in an attempt to convince the obviously damaged incels who inhabit them to seek out the professional help they so sorely need to sort through their deep resentments and build up a healthy self-esteem.
But most incels are too devoted to their own dysfunction, too committed to stewing in their own hate, too addicted to self-pity, to even consider it. And the few who have given it a try seem bent on sabotaging any chance it might make a difference. On Reddit’s main forum for incels, one recently complained that, after 10 therapy sessions, “I haven’t changed at all. I’ve not grown taller. My face hasn’t become any more attractive. I still get no attention from girls. Therapy was the most useless thing I’ve ever tried in my life.”
Therapy only works when patients truly want to change. And the sort of person who complains, absurdly, that therapy hasn’t made them taller or better looking – well, they aren’t likely to get much out of it.
Frankly, I’m not sure we can get very far with most incels by appealing to their humanity – as many of them don’t seem to have much humanity left. Scanning their forums in the wake of Monday’s tragedy, I haven’t found any real compassion for the victims. Some incels are indignantly denying that this horrific mass murder had anything to do with them. And others are justifying future murders even more horrible than the ones we’ve already seen. And in both of these scenarios, remarkably, incels manage to cast themselves as the true victims.
“Women and society have dejected us into loneliness and depression,” complains a commenter on Incels.me who calls himself eliotrogerhere. “Their obsession with looks has driven many of us who don’t fit their standards to anger and homicidal tendencies. This is not the result of mental illness because it is a normal response to prejudiced behavior. … What’s the incentive for incels (ugly men) to follow YOUR social rules, when our actions, GOOD or BAD, will never be rewarded? Why NOT shoot up that sorority full of girls that teased you?... [O]r get into a van and run you over.”
So if appeals to shared humanity are out, is there anything else we can do? We may not be able to win back those who have plunged too deeply into the incel rabbit hole, but we can take steps to limit their ability to recruit new members. Incels aren’t born; they’re made. Sure, most new incel recruits start out embittered and lonely. But they are radicalized by their incel peers on a relatively small number of message boards devoted to the incel ideology.
So we should take a page from the anti-fascist activists who’ve done so much to kick back against the so-called “alt-right” over the last year – not only by confronting the fascists in the streets but also working diligently behind the scenes to take away their platforms online.
They’ve managed to get many prominent alt-right figures and their sympathizers knocked off of Twitter and Facebook for their flagrant violations of site rules. They’ve gotten alt-right groups removed from fundraising platforms such as PayPal and Patreon. They’ve forced The Daily Stormer, one of the most blatantly hateful neo-Nazi sites, off of web host after web host and for a time confined it to the dark web, rendering it basically inaccessible to most casual internet users and dramatically restricting its reach.
The systematic effort to deplatform the alt-right, online and off, has clearly contributed to the crumbling morale of a movement that only a year ago was riding high in the wake of Donald Trump’s U.S. election victory.
Would a similar strategy work with incels? Some months ago, activists did manage to pressure social-media giant Reddit into closing down the original Incels subreddit for its unwillingness to crack down on commenters advocating violence. Some have seen this as a bit of a Pyrrhic victory, as many of the more extreme characters who used to hang out there have simply moved themselves en masse to Incels.me, where they continue to spew hatred and cheer on violence as before, while the slightly less extreme incels who stuck around on Reddit simply started up a new subreddit that has tried a little harder to play by Reddit’s rules.
But every time groups like this get booted from a platform or a web host for breaking the rules, it takes them time and effort to regroup – and it makes their sites harder for the unwary to stumble upon.
We may not be able to erase the hate, but we can restrict their hate speech, and that at least is a small step in the right direction.