Framing Terrorism: Incel Violence, Misogynism and the Media

From misogynistic memes to the encouragement of violence and derogatory language, the incel internet subculture has become known for their increasing hatred of women, putting them on the watch list for extremist monitoring groups. 

By Lizzie Cernik

For many years an underground community of involuntary celibate men or ‘incels’ has thrived online. From misogynistic memes to the encouragement of violence and derogatory language, this internet subculture has become known for their increasing hatred of women, putting them on the watch list for extremist monitoring groups. 

Originally found in the darkest corners of Reddit, incel culture has begun to dominate mainstream headlines in western countries, following a series of violent acts by members of the community. In 2014, Elliot Rodger became a martyr for certain subsections of the incel movement, when he killed six people and injured 14 others in a misogynistic attack. Since then there have been other acts of serious violence linked to incels, most recently the tragic shooting spree in Plymouth, where gunman Jack Davison killed five people, including his own mother. 

According to the Center for Countering Digital Hate, Davison was associated with the incel community online, posting misogynistic content in various high-profile incel spaces. Imran Ahmed, CEO of the CCDH, says that social media companies have provided a platform for this type of extremism, allowing communities to recruit and radicalise thousands of young men.

“We are dealing with an extremist ideology with a hateful motivation for violence against women. As we’ve seen several times now, this twisted, women-hating ideology has the power to lead its followers down a path which ends in appalling violence,” Imran Ahmed tells Media Diversity Institute

He states that the companies are too slow in reacting to this type of threat, and should be doing more to intervene.

“Young men are drawn into this movement not via the darkest corners of the internet, but on the world’s most popular social media platforms, like Facebook and YouTube.

Tech platforms have been far too slow in recognising their duty to stamp out activity which presents a real and immediate danger to others,” he continues.

It’s a view that’s shared by Dr Maria Norris, research fellow at the Politics and International Studies department of the University of Warwick and co-host of extremist podcast Enemies of the People.

“Incel groups don’t recruit in traditional ways. A young man might see a sexist meme disguised as humour, and find it funny,” she explains.

“From there he might start looking for more similar posts, and get dragged into what we call the manosphere, a space for men’s rights groups, pick-up artists and incels. Although different there are shared themes of extreme misogyny. Men who are feeling disillusioned or vulnerable are at high risk of getting sucked into this dark sphere and becoming radicalised. However, there’s not a specific leader and the groups aren’t organised like previous extremists,” Dr. Norris tells Media Diversity Institute.

When violent acts are committed by someone who is associated with these groups, the media often hones in on mental health and loneliness as key contributors or reasons behind the attacks. Dr Norris argues that discussions around terrorism need to be expanded to cover any act of ideologically driven violence.

“So often I feel it’s not taken as seriously as other forms of violence. The term terrorism is disproportionately applied to acts of violence from Muslim exteremist groups. In the US especially it is difficult to label white extremism as terrorism as it’s not considered an international issue, but a domestic one.”

She argues that governments need to renew their approach to counter terror, in order to monitor the way new groups are working and how the internet is changing the way people are radicalised.

“Before the year 2000 in the UK we had emergency legislation in place for terrorism. It then became permanent but hasn’t evolved along with the threats and changing types of violence and radicalisation. White extremism is an afterthought,” Dr Norris says.

Dr Norris adds that the media is complicit with the understanding of what terrorism is, by humanising acts of violence from white men.

“The narrative is always around loneliness and mental health. You don’t see that with non-white extremeist groups.” 

Dr Lisa Sugiura, deputy director at Cybercrime Awareness and author of The Incel Rebellion: The Rise of the Manosphere and the Virtual War Against Women, argues the the label ‘terrorism’ is more complex for incel groups. She has spoken to many young men who identify with the incel culture and while she acknowledges the very real dangers of radicalisation, she’s wary of over simplifying the threat and says the situation is nuanced.

“In the case of Davison, there’s some information to suggest he was an incel, but other information suggested he hated these groups as well. It’s not always as clear cut as the media makes out.” 

Like Dr Norris, she believes that many young men stumble into the community by accident, unlike other groups. “One minute they’re Googling ‘how to get a girlfriend’ and the next they’re falling down the rabbit hole of this misogynistic sphere. The majority of the community isn’t dangerous, but there is certainly a very dangerous minority. I have some concerns that labelling it as terror attacks could push people off public platforms to even more dangerous parts of the dark web.” For Dr Sugiura, prevention should be the key focus for governments and social media companies.

“Algorithms are a big problem because people get stuck in an echo chamber where they are recommended similar content all the time. They are not being offered any counter opinions or evidence,” she says.

“Social media companies have a responsibility to better monitor the content being shared and accounts that are reported. One of the big challenges is fake accounts and the anonymous nature of online posting.”

In addition she argues that schools can be doing more to encourage healthy dialogue and education about relationships and gender equality.

“It’s too late by the time kids are in high school. We need to be supporting children early on to understand what healthy dating and relationships should look like, as well as identifying mental health problems and offering additional support.” 

For Dr Simon Purdue, fellow at the Institute for Research on Male Supremacism, one of the most concerning areas of the online incel culture is ‘martyrdom’, which he believes makes the movement a growing threat.

“Elliot Rodger has been held up as a saint by parts of the community. The use of violent, misogynist language is strongly encouraged and there is almost a competition between site users to see who can be the most extreme. Suicide ideation is common too, and ‘suicide by cop’. Being killed by police when committing a violent act is something that some incels aspire to,” Dr Purdue tells Media Diveristy Institute.

He adds that a sense of hopelessness is deliberately fostered within the community, in order to lure in vulnerable men. The sites used, which include Reddit, 4Chan and other more specific incel websites, tap into toxic masculinity and encourage young men to see ‘hating women’ as an easy answer to their problems. According to Dr Purdue the situation has escalated during lockdown.

“We’ve seen specific incel forums grow especially quickly, particularly in the past six months,” he says.

“They are more popular than places like Reddit now. People being stuck at home has contributed to this, and people have found an outlet online.” 

He acknowledges that many young men who join the community have mental health issues and often struggle with other problems, like autism. However, he promotes the use of the word terrorism to describe this form of ideological violence.

“Lots of people suffer with mental health issues and don’t commit acts of violence. I believe mental health can be part of the solution, but not an excuse or reason. An attacker should never be portrayed as a victim by the media,” he explains.  

Dr Sugiura believes that media focus of any kind on an attacker should be significantly reduced in all situations.

“The constant focus on the perpetrator of violent acts diminishes the victims and can encourage copycat attacks.” she says.

“It’s not responsible to sensationalise the story and often assumptions are made without the full facts. The media should have a greater responsibility to report these acts of violence in a sensitive way.”

Coupled with better education and awareness, she says reducing sensationalism could help society to better tackle the root causes behind incel culture and lower the threat of violence from misogynistic groups. 

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