by Lewys Brace & Stephane Baele
At around 18:00 local time on 12th August 2021, Jake Davison carried out a killing spree in Plymouth (UK) that resulted in the deaths of five people, before ultimately taking his own life. Information about Davison’s mindset and online behaviour remains scarce, but indicates that he had some engagement with incel (short for “involuntary celibate”) content on the Internet, and that his behavioural and psychological profile was not dissimilar to that of other perpetrators of incel-inspired violence. Alarmed by some of the misogynistic ideas he was voicing and sharing, including to her, his mother – who would later be his first victim – submitted a Prevent referral. This referral – and the underpinning question of the exact nature of Davison’s engagement with incel ideas and online communities – is at the heart of one of the two official inquests into the incident.
Here we seek to clear some of the fog surrounding this question by systematically analysing Davison’s online activity. This comes from a unique perspective: thanks to our CREST-funded “Con.Cel” project, we already had the digital infrastructure necessary to extract Davison’s online content.
Journalistic work and the ongoing inquests had already aired that Davison had a YouTube channel where he uploaded a few videos under the username “Professor Waffle”, and that he had shared views on sub-Reddits under the username “Jake3572”. Starting with these clues, we were able to retrieve and analyse his contributions. From an extremist threat perspective, the central question is to assess the extent to which Davison’s worldview aligned with the incel one. In other words, to evaluate the extent to which this was indeed a case of incel-inspired violence. Our findings leave little ambiguity: his Reddit posts and YouTube videos do match typical incel language and ideas.
Key themes of the Incelosphere
Before diving into the data, a brief reminder on typical incel language and ideas ought to be provided as a benchmark for the evaluation of Davison’s activity.
The numerous online spaces hosting incel content are perhaps best conceptualised as an ecosystem, which is usually called the “incelosphere”. Sub-Reddits (thematic discussions boards hosted by the Reddit platform) and incel-specific forums (such as incels.me) have played a central role in the evolution of this ecosystem. As highlighted by many studies, these spaces host highly toxic and misogynistic discussions which can rightfully be labelled “extremist”. In a recent paper, we demonstrated that these discussions have steadily become increasingly violent over the past years, especially those on the most popular online spaces of the ecosystem. The increase of incel-inspired acts of violence is, therefore, unsurprising.
The worldview constructed through these discussions articulates several key claims and themes. First comes the notion of a “lookist society” whose only logic determining success at forming sexual relationships (and in life more broadly) is that of physical appearance, structured as a three-tiered hierarchy with the good-looking males (“Chads”) and women (“Stacys”) at the top, normal-looking (“normies” or “betas”) in the middle, and the incels at the bottom. Second, women are consistently dehumanised, depicted as manipulative beings solely driven by greed and lust for the “Chads”, and acting as the hypergamous gatekeepers to sexual relationships. Third, this situation allegedly results in the systematic discrimination and rejection of incels, who present themselves as victims of an oppressive social structure that condemns to failure all their efforts to improve (“black pill” ideology). Finally, many incel discussions focus on issues of social isolation and mental health problems (particularly autism), as well as suicide. With these elements in mind, we can now turn to Davison’s prose on both Reddit and YouTube.
Using Davison’s Reddit username, we yielded a dataset that contained all of the posts that this username made to any sub-Reddit – we complemented our own database with data collected by the Pushshift project for a few non-incel sub-Reddits. We found a total of 590 posts made by Davison to 39 different sub-Reddits between 21/11/2020 (when the “Jake3572” account was created) and 10/08/2021 (two days before the Plymouth attack). Table 1 below summarizes this data, which clearly demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of Davison’s activity concentrated on sub-Reddits that hosted incel or incel-adjacent content. The presence of r/IncelsExit, however, lends some support to mentions Davison made in his videos regarding the self-perceived negative impact of the incel ideology on his mental health.
A chronological layout of these contribution reveals two important facts. First, although his account was created on the 21st of November 2020, Davison was not posting regularly until much later – his activity took off on April the 16th, 2021 (Figure 1) – denoting a quite sudden immersion in this online space at that particular point in time. Second, Davison’s interests (within this narrow online environment) have undergone shifts, yet has from the onset been clearly situated within the incelosphere (Figure 2). When he really starts posting to Reddit in April 2021, he is initially interested in r/Virgin (medium blue line) and r/AmIUgly (cyan line), and later that month becomes interested in r/ForeverAlone, all of which tap into various aspects of incel ideology (lookism and not being able to get a girlfriend). During May and June 2021, Davison spends time interacting with other sub-Reddits to a lesser degree, such as r/MensRights (fuchsia line), r/Depression (olive line), and r/RateMe (grey line), which again echo incel themes such as mental health and a rating system for physical appearance. The exception during this time is r/IncelTear, which was a sub-Reddit where people posted screenshots of incel comments and content for mocking purposes. Then, during June 2021, we see Davison reach peak posting behaviour on r/IncelsExit and r/UglyUncensored, as well as some engagement with r/AmIUglyBrutallyHonest, which is a sub-Reddit similar to r/AmIUgly but with deliberately cruel responses. Then, in the weeks building up to his attack, during July 2021, we see an increase in posting to r/IncelsInAction, a sub-Reddit akin to r/IncelTear, and r/Doomer, a sub-Reddit for fatalistic and nihilistic discussions.
Two simple word clouds displayed in Figure 3 (on the left, most common terms in his posts; on the right, most common co-occurring terms) offer a snapshot of what he actually wrote in these posts. Very clearly, these terms are highly reflective of the various tenets of the incel ideology listed above, and unsurprisingly correspond to the sub-Reddits’ themes. These visualizations closely resemble similar ones done on well-known incel spaces, albeit with less dehumanizing language.
Using a Non-negative Matrix Factorization (NMF) topic model (a computational method that “discovers” the topics in a corpus), we show that Davidson’s posts fall into one of eight substantive topics (Table 2). Again, while some of the hateful dehumanising lingo usually found on incel spaces is absent (e.g., “femoid”, “roasties”), the topics unambiguously situate Davison’s prose within typical incel considerations and themes such as dating, self-perceived physical traits and mental health deficiencies, going to the gym (what incels call “looxmaxxing” and “gymaxxing”), and failure to socialize. Much like typical incel preoccupations, a strong theme is social isolation and mental health; Davison talks about his feelings of isolation and loneliness, his struggle with wellbeing, and his disengagement from school and society.
These issues, along with a particular dislike for his mother, who was the first victim during his attack, intertwine throughout the numerous posts and interactions Davison had on sub-Reddits. One notable example from r/IncelExit on the 11th of June 2021 combines them all together:
“I was never insecure or dogmatic at all until i reached my early 20s. combine that with tons of other physical mental sexual health issues as well as living in government housing with my vile mother no car can’t drive never been abroad autistic socially isolated no friends black sheep forgotten about.”
Davison’s YouTube channel contained only 8 videos that he uploaded under his “Professor Waffle” username. Three of these videos were of Davison doing different forms of weight training, a fourth was a “rate me” video whereby Davison filmed himself pulling various expressions so that others could determine whether he was ugly (which is a typical incel practice and corresponds to his activity on r/AmIUglyBrutallyHonest, r/AmIUgly, and r/RateMe), and a fifth video was a clip from the videogame ‘Killzone’ entitled The Helghase From Killzone are very blackpilled #blackpill. The three remining videos, however, range between 10-15 minutes in length and offer an insight into Davison’s mentality and worldview. As a small corpus, they are best analysed qualitatively.
In the first one, Davison expresses frustration with his life and a perceived lack of progress, making statements such as “As you get older, you get ground down […] I’m at a point where I’m like ‘why do I bother?’ I’m still in the same house, everything is the same”. He talks about lacking motivation and becoming despondent after “years of working out” and “dealing with these issues”, and discusses how he no longer experiences satisfaction from working out. He also makes a few references to how he has lacked support in life, stating that “I’m not clarifying myself as an incel but people like similar to me they have had nothing but themselves and they socially had it tough. Like how can you have drive and will power?”. One of the last things he mentions in this video, and which got substantial media attention, was the statement “I like to think I’m the Terminator”. However, this was not a direct reference to any tendencies he felt he had towards committing violence, but an analogy about fighting against an unstoppable force (the machines from the film and social pressures in the context of his personal life) yet having to “push on”.
In the second video, Davison talks about teenage experiences of love and sexual activity, and how a lack of them during that time can result in an individual being “developmentally fucked”. Three main themes can be observed in this video. First, Davison continues to express frustration with his life experiences and feeling despondent about future ones, talking about how “love is easier to experience when you’re younger because your hormones are racing, that’s when it’s most intense” but you then start to feel “numb” about such things as you get older. Second, Davison echoes his Reddit posts centred on his own physical appearance, saying things such as “I had girls into me. I had them into me. But stupid mental barrier, for me it was because I was fat as fuck. How could I be on top of this girl with my fat thighs and fat stomach. Ugh… No way”. Third, Davison starts to use well-known incel terminology and discusses ideas that are even more central to the incel worldview, making statements such as “love as an adult, what is that? Lets say I get with a woman my age, she has had a million relationships, likely been destroyed and broken and torn apart by fucking Chad, she’s probably inconcapable [sic]… Incapable of loving anyone like she did when she was 16, 17, 15, when she got with that first fucking Chad that fucking whatever, right?”
In the third video, Davison draws upon the incel notion of hypergamy, talking about how “most women are quite simple minded, they focus only on [gestures towards camera that implies he is talking about looks] or that [makes money gesture]” and how “women are biologically set up to care more about looks” due to evolutionary developments in our species which have resulted in women being picky and not “want or find average-looking men”. In this video, Davison also taps into the wider incel beliefs regarding how women are becoming more sexually selective due to various socio-political-economic developments, stating with characteristic incel terminology that “the blackpill doesn’t just apply to incels but a load of guys. In this day and age, going for 6 months without sex, not receiving one compliment from a person, very common. Why do you think sexual assaults are rising, and women are saying, the reality is that women don’t need men no more and they certainly do not want average men or below average.”
In sum, Davison’s YouTube monologues clearly reflect core incel claims and ideas, and while his Reddit posts didn’t feature the most extreme and dehumanizing language found in incel spaces, his videos did contain some of it.
In sum, it cannot be contested that Davison’s social media contributions very closely align with the stereotypical incel prose and concerns, tapping into typical ideas such as men being oppressed through women denying them sex – as exemplified by this 12 June 2021 post on r/IncelExit:
“Giving women unlimited choices is fine but when you do that women choose men there attracted too which is quite honestly a very narrow percentage of men that almost all other women lust after a lot of men struggle nowadays not just incels so many women will break up with guys over almost nothing the average man to a lot of women in this market where women have so many options is easily replacable [sic] cannon fodder […]”
Incidentally, this analysis interestingly suggests that focusing on keyword use might not be a suitable indicator for measuring an individual’s tendency to carry out acts of incel-inspired violence – Davison’s contributions are neither replete with dehumanizing labels nor recurrently calling for violent retribution. Instead, looking for some form of “leakage” might be useful. In this sense, leakage refers to an individual integrating incel-related ideas and notions with their personal, offline, life experiences in online posts, which might indicate that an individual’s threshold to carry out an act of violence is decreasing.
 To enhance clarity, the graph implements a 20-day rolling average and only contains data for sub-Reddits where Davison posted more than 3 times.
Stephane Baele is Associate Professor in Security and Political Violence at the University of Exeter, UK. His work on violent political actors’ communications, and the role of language in conflict more generally, has appeared in leading journals across the social sciences. He is the PI of the NORFACE-funded project ExID (Extreme Identities) mapping and analysis the far-right online ecosystem.
Lewys Brace is Senior Lecturer in Computational Social Sciences at the University of Exeter, UK. His research, which appears among others in Terrorism & Political Violence and Studies in Conflict & Terrorism mostly focuses on terrorism and online extremism. He was the PI of the CREST-funded project Con.Cel examining online processes of incel ideological contamination.
Image Credit: PEXELS