By Brenna Helm, Ryan Scrivens, Thomas J. Holt, Steven M. Chermak, and Richard Frank
The online presence of incels, or involuntary celibates, has been an increasing security concern for researchers, practitioners, and policymakers in recent years, given that self-identified incels – including Alek Minassian and Elliot Rodger – used the Internet to disseminate incel ideology and manifestos prior to committing acts of violence. However, little is empirically known about the incel movement in general or their online communities in particular. The present study draws from a set of comments from r/Incels, a now defunct but once popular subreddit dedicated to the incel community, and compares the most highly-upvoted comments (n = 500) to a random set of other comments (n = 500) in the subreddit. This qualitative analysis focuses on identifying subcultural discourse that is widely supported and engaged with by members of the online community and the extent to which incels utilize this online space to reaffirm deviant behavior. Several conclusions can be drawn from this study.
First, this study demonstrated that incel perspectives and worldview were shared in the form of a blackpill doctrine, which was part of a broader ideology of grievance against men and women. Such comments, particularly those against women, were more prevalent in the random set, as were comments that were personal and emotional in nature (see Table 1). These dynamics are similar to that of other online subcultures, wherein users are encouraged to engage with one another on a personal level. Furthermore, this study mirrors prior work on incel communities which find participants are more likely to use personal pronouns in their comments.
Table 1. Thematic analysis categories across sets.
The arguments and debates between posters across the samples also reflect broader dynamics observed in studies of online subcultures. Individuals within the subculture debated the meaning of concepts like being blackpilled, “true” inceldom, and the value of violent actions, suggesting there were differences in the experiences of subcultural participants. The use of terms like “normie” also served to identify those who existed outside of the subculture’s boundaries, similar to other subcultures. Recognizing the different experiences of those within the subculture and the presence of out-groups is essential to the enculturation process of being an incel.
Second, ideological conflict was the most prevalent theme within the upvoted set, as opposed to being the third most prevalent among comments in the random set. Across both sets, over half of these comments were ad hominem arguments reliant on insults. The upvoted set included a greater number of comments identifying hypocrisy but users were still more likely to resort to insults. It should be noted that comments involving incels making life-altering changes were commonly found in the highly-upvoted comments. There were mixed reactions to comments promoting change, with some users responding positively while others – especially those blackpill adherents – were negative. Corrective comments were overwhelmingly sourced from users who appeared to be non-incel, and were much more frequent within the highly-upvoted set. As a result, this sort of engagement created a potential mechanism to counter violent extremism rhetoric within the subreddit. Corrective comments may have served as means to dissuade users, particularly new incel users, from adopting incel values and behaviors. Indeed, the discriminatory and prejudicial statements prevalent across both sets reflect prior research on the views of incels generally. This may speak to the salience of misogyny and racism in society, which were the most frequent type of discriminatory comments, followed by anti-trans and homophobic comments. A lack of opposition (i.e., downvoting) may also indicate that comments alluding to action or harm accrued stronger reactions and thus greater oppositional engagement. In short, users may have directed their focus to the most controversial comments.
Third, while infrequent, comments including violent outbursts or alluding to offline harm were more likely to be found within the random set. It is more likely that non-incel users were quick to downvote these comments, which may have helped provide an important counter-narrative to violent ideas. At the same time, the importance of shared experiences and personal grievances among incels demonstrated the importance of offline personal experiences and interactions in the formation and acceptance of online subcultural norms and values. Their shared experiences reinforced the value of the online community in their lives, and their potential commitment to this subculture. The adversarial relationships to outgroups and acknowledgement of violent narratives may have also reaffirmed individuals’ identification as incel and contributed to the overall process of radicalization toward violence. Importantly, since the majority of incels appeared to be nonviolent, the lack of tolerance for actual violence may be reflected in the lack of positive engagement with the most harmful deviance comments. In some respects, this mirrors what is known about involvement in various ideological movements—a very small proportion of adherents engage in violent actions in support of their beliefs. The nonviolent nature of most incels did not prevent the justification of deviant and criminal behaviors, as well as rampant misogyny and other forms of discrimination in the subreddit. Thus, online communities, such as the former incel subreddit, could foster the enculturation of users into deviant subcultures or migration to more extremist subcultures, such as those found in incel-dedicated third party sites.
Lastly, as one element of the broader incel subculture, the r/Incels subreddit was heavily exposed to conflicting mainstream values from who appear to be non-incel ‘lurkers.’ Compared to other subreddits, incels may have been particularly interesting to onlookers of all backgrounds due to recent, widely known attacks by incels. Many topics discussed by incels, notably those that lend themselves to rape culture, women’s bodily autonomy, and intimate relationships, are also prominent in mainstream conversations. The sensationalized topics coupled with incels extreme opinions may have culminated into an online space where mainstream observers clashed with the extreme incel subculture.
In conclusion, themes that lend themselves to more radical incel sentiment (i.e., incel ideology, harmful deviance, etc.) were more frequent in the random set while those challenging incel radicalization (e.g., support, corrective comments, shaming deviance, etc.) were more prominent in the upvoted set. Collectively, the prevalence of non-incel engagement within the subreddit may have contributed to some incels conceptualization of normies as an adversary group, particularly among more veteran or extreme users. Overall, this begs the question of how these mechanisms have driven user migration to sites that, in addition to being more extreme, are more privatized and dedicated to incel-ideology. Additionally, it is essential to understand whether the clash of incel subculture and mainstream opposition was just as important in redirecting some users who were swayed by ‘normie’ support and encouragement.
Ryan Scrivens is an Assistant Professor in the School of Criminal Justice at MSU. He is also an Associate Director at the International CyberCrime Research Centre (ICCRC) and a Research Fellow at the VOX-Pol Network of Excellence. Follow him on Twitter: @R_Scrivens.
Image credit: Unsplash.