By Christian Vorre Mogensen
Incels – people living in ‘Inceldom’ – define themselves by their inability to engage in romantic or sexual relations, despite strong wishes to do so. A true Incel is someone who has not, and never will, engage in any such activities or relationships. People referring to themselves as Incels are mostly portrayed as perpetrators of violent criminal acts or by shock-and-horror stories in tabloid newspapers.
Lurking in the deep and dark corners of the internet are the social misfits and sexually frustrated Incels. They spew misogynistic hate speech, promote rape and pay tribute to mass-murderers and terrorists. Analysis of the incel phenomenon range from those who believe them to extremely dangerous and should be stopped at any cost, to those who believe taking such a narrow view risks simplifying a complex social structure. Therefore over the years, I myself have observed, monitored, interviewed and tried to understand Incels – both as a collective, and through some individuals who agreed to give interviews. Therefore, this article represents my main observations and insights.
Organised attempts to scapegoat some games for mass violence began over two decades ago in the aftermath of the Columbine massacre – the killers played games such as Doom. The NRA and other pro-gun groups attempted to direct public anger towards games and rock music to distract from the issue of gun control. This tactic of whipping up moral panic about the gaming community has continued ever since. Despite some well-funded attempts to problematise gaming, the American Psychological Association has stated that ‘attributing violence to video gaming is not scientifically sound and draws attention away from other factors, such as a history of violence, which we know from the research is a major predictor of future violence.’
As gaming and eSports (competitive gaming with spectators) have matured, a multitude of platforms have emerged to facilitate discussion, the sale and streaming of games. These platforms, the most well-known of which include Discord, Twitch and Steam, have now developed to a point where they can better be thought of as standalone social networks and e-commerce platforms. With the exponential increase in regular gamers and the corresponding rise in the number and complexity of platforms, it is unsurprising that these platforms have been abused by extremists. The perpetrator of the 2011 “Utøya” massacre was a gamer, and the terrorist who carried out the Halle attacks streamed his crimes on Twitch.
The Evolution of the Incel Movement
The term ‘Incel’ (a portmanteau of involuntary celibate) was coined in 1993 by ‘Alana’, a young woman struggling to find love. Since then, through a series of digital transitions and reformations over online communities such as love-shy, 4chan and Reddit, the Incel community has found its voice, with occasional spillovers into social media.
The connotations of the term itself has changed drastically since its digital birth in the early 90s. It started as a moniker proclaiming feelings of loneliness and estrangement from “normal” peers. Originally, it focused on coping strategies, personal development and expressing the frustration of feeling ostracised from partaking in flirting, giving or receiving romantic attention or having sexual relationships. It has since grown to a community expressing frustration, anger, and antagonisation of non-Incels (“normies”).
Threads with titles such as: ‘Women should be kept uneducated’ and ‘Hitler, and a better world – my Neo-Nazi visions’ are just a few of the offensive and aggressive discussions on the front page of one of the most prolific Incel discussion boards (their communities have mostly been banned and outlawed on Reddit, Facebook, Twitter etc.). Keeping women uneducated or installing extreme political governments to enforce the fantasies of controlling society is a pivotal point in the societal focus of the Incel community. As such the Incel community places itself as part of the manospheric wing of the internet, which is a newer movement focusing on the inherent higher value of men in the world at large, whilst simultaneously continuously attacking feminism for its attempts to bridge the gender divide between men and women.
Therefore, Incels are currently a growing body of concern for many institutions, particularly as the threat continues to grow. Although Incels have headlined newspapers following horrible attacks in Isla Vista, Toronto, Tallahassee, Parkland amongst others, the growing number of threats and violent communications made online has caused police in both the US, Canada and Europe to pre-emptively apprehend an increasing number of young men threatening or even planning to commit comparable atrocities and attacks. This increase has led several national security services to include Incels in threat-status reports (Denmark, Sweden, US, Canada, England and many more).
Incels – Part of ‘The Manosphere’
As part of the Incel anti-feminism that seeps from closed forums and into mainstream and social media, we also observe a disproportionate level of threat, hate-speech and digital attacks aimed at female politicians and media personalities, particularly against those with a clear feminist or progressive narrative. This leads to many activists silencing themselves out of fear for attacks. Indeed, the Institute for Human Rights (Denmark) and data-analysis organisation Analyse & Tal (Analysis & Numbers) have both proven that women are targeted far more frequently than men in these cases.
Although the framing of Incels can easily lead to painting a picture of violent criminals congregating in online environments to plot revenge and political violence, this is far from the case. When observed, it becomes evident that many new users join such communities to find a place to fit in; they express a self-narrative of loneliness, unpopularity, low self-esteem, and low social status, all of which makes it impossible for them to take part in youth culture. However, what could have been an online support-system quickly becomes toxic.
When interviewed about angry and violent sentiment put forth online, almost all Incels have given statements describing extreme ostracisation, loneliness, unhappiness and other extremely negative upbringings. This in no way excuses the violent rhetoric they author online, but combined with other knowledge about men’s ability to emotionally express themselves, we need to understand the possibility of Incels “translating” emotions, experiences and their whole lives of sadness and unhappiness, as these are not generally accepted masculine emotions, into those of anger, violence and revenge.
The problem – and solution – to Inceldom
Observing Incel forums also brings further evidence to support this notion. Many users seem to begin their digital participation by asking support-seeking questions. To give one example, on a prominent Incel forum, one user first asks in 2018: ‘What’s wrong with me?’. Two years later, the user posts a new question: “How many foids could you kill in a fight?” (‘Foid’ is an extremely derogatory term used in objectifying women). The first question was met with replies blaming women for his vulnerability.
This process has a profound effect: It necessitates the Incel community itself, because the community itself provides a sense of belonging that Incels do not feel outside of it. The community thus makes itself imperative in the lives of vulnerable young men and in turn further removes them from the societies they were once striving to be a part of.
In conclusion, it is important to understand that the ‘problem’ with Incels should not be targeted on the individual Incels themselves, and more on the Incel ‘community’. By applying a preventive measure in emotionally empowering young men, one could bridge the gap for them to express emotions and troubles in semantic categories other than anger. Should that fail, practitioners should be advised their P/CVE activity to re-integrate these young men in pro-social and supportive communities. Furthermore, police and local authorities need to broaden their understanding of both the technical and social aspects of Incel communities. The consequences to not doing so, as history has unfortunately shown, can be profound.
Christian Mogensen is a specialist consultant with Center for Digital Youth Care (Denmark), with responsibility for online communities, gender & sex, and destructive online behaviour. On Twitter @CVMogensen.
This article is republished with permission from the September 2021 edition of Spotlight magazine, ‘Emerging Threats‘. Spotlight is a publication from the European Commission’s Radicalisation Awareness Network for RAN’s network of practitioners. Image credit: Unsplash.