October 23, 2021

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Incel forums: What happens on them?

Warning: This article contains references that could be upsetting

As the UK mourns the tragic deaths of five people in a mass shooting in Plymouth, links between the gunman Jake Davison and the online incel community are being made, as the 22-year-old took to forums just days before he embarked on Britain’s worst mass shooting in more than a decade. He told a US teenager on a subreddit forum that he was “bitter and jealous” and that women “treat men with zero respect or even view them as human beings”. The shootings have already prompted calls for extra resources to tackle the woman-hating ideology which is thought to have inspired the Plymouth gunman.

Two years ago, one male Cosmopolitan writer, infiltrated the community to find out more about its beginnings, its motivations and, perhaps most importantly, what could be done to minimise its impact. This is what he found…

Inside the minds of dangerous men

There are things said on forums, in the darkest corners of the internet, that I could never repeat; where violent words are tossed around so casually. The hours I spent online seeking out hate so that I could understand it made my eyeballs hurt. I wanted to tell myself it was “harmless” chat, that these people were all talk. But I couldn’t. I know that isn’t the case…

These conversations all took place on incel forums, the online subculture of “involuntary celibates”, a group of people, mostly heterosexual males (although there are female incels – “femcels” – and gay incels – “gaycels”), who cannot find a romantic partner. But while some incels are just that – those who can’t find someone to sleep with – there is a growing number who have taken it further. They despise women, blaming them, along with feminism and social-justice warriors, as the reason they aren’t having sex. They seem to think sex is their given right… and if they can’t get it, then something has to be done.

A developing threat

Orange light from the street outside coated Elliot Rodger’s face as he filmed himself speaking to the camera. “I’m 22 years old and I’m still a virgin,” he said, staring eerily into the lens. He outlined how he had been cast out from the world: “I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me, but I will punish you all for it. It’s an injustice… I’m the perfect guy and yet you throw yourselves at these obnoxious men instead of me.”

Minutes after uploading the video to YouTube, Rodger drove to a sorority house in the university town of Isla Vista, California, his car filled with ammunition. After failing to get in, he shot three women outside; two of them died. After exchanging gunfire with police, he was found dead in his car with a self-inflicted bullet wound to the head. In total, he killed six people that day, injuring 14 others.

incel forums what happens on them

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That was in May 2014, and in the years that have followed, Rodger has become a hero to some in the incel community. T-shirts have been printed with his face on; memes have been created and shared, with taglines like “time to turn this ‘friend zone’ into a war zone”. He has, it seems, also inspired copycat killings: five killers (including three mass murderers) in the USA, all self-identifying as incels, have mentioned his name. That includes Alek Minassian, then 25, who drove a van into pedestrians in Toronto in 2018, killing 10 and injuring 16, mostly women. Shortly before the attack, he updated his status on Facebook.“The Incel Rebellion has already begun!” he wrote. “All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!’

This wasn’t how it was meant to go. When the term “incel” was first used, in the ’90s, it was on a website created by a woman who was looking to form bonds with other virgins. Everyone was welcome to share their experiences and support one another. Now, the spate of attacks has led the Texas Department of Public Safety to warn that incels are an “emerging domestic terrorism threat”. Jake Davison’s case could be reclassified as terrorism, due to his links with inceldom, but it is debated online whether this is the right term for crimes of this nature. But with so many lives already lost and thousands of incels online at any given time, how the situation got this far needs to be discussed. Are we entering an era where these young men will continue to be radicalised to commit obscene acts of hate? If that’s the case, there’s also a big chance that I am chatting away, late at night, to tomorrow’s murderers.

Taking the red pill

The vast language incels use is near-impossible for an outsider to penetrate. In my attempt to infiltrate this super-secretive world, I keep messing up – and when you mess up, people jump on you really quickly. Joining the movement is called being “redpilled” or “blackpilled”, while non- believers are “bluepilled”. Attractive women are “Stacys”.“Beckys”are those they deem less attractive. Me? I’m a “Chad”. I go to the gym, I drink protein shakes, I’ve never struggled with girls. And this is the language that has become public, translated for me by Wikipedia pages and news articles. On the forums, there are so many more abbreviations that I don’t understand. It feels as though the more we learn about incels, the more they shapeshift, to keep the prying eyes of the “normies” (non-incels) out.

When I put up a post about how I’m angry at being rejected, I’m caught out for getting my “Stacys” and “Beckys” mixed up. Besides, I don’t seem angry enough.“Do you think this is some kind of relationship advice forum?” comes one response. It seems the only way to be accepted into the “manosphere” (the term used to describe the collection of websites promoting misogynist ideologies, including incel forums and pick-up- artist groups) is to… you guessed it… insult women. Discussions I see getting the most comments begin with things like “Women are truly disgusting sociopathic creatures” and “Would you fuck the ugliest girl you know?”

Yet this is not meant to be taken seriously. Or so says ex-incel Jack Peterson who – from his house in Chicago – is trying to convince me that most incels are harmless.“They use that kind of humour to mask the sadness they’re feeling,” he says. “You can say that you want to kill women, but it might just be a facade, or some kind of black humour.” Peterson first joined 4chan (the anonymous image-posting site that – on some of its boards – is a breeding ground for anti-feminist and racist views, and the place where various nude celebrity photos were leaked in 2014) when he was just 11. “For me, it began with the self-deprecating jokes and it gradually got darker and darker.”

incel forums what happens on them

When I put this to Jacob Davey, of extremism think-tank ISD, he’s not so sure.“That’s a defence often employed by the alt-right,” he says. “They’ll say, ‘It’s a joke that people don’t get.’ But as more and more people come into those spaces, the irony shared by the original members starts to drop off.” Therein lies the problem: you can’t make the assumption that everyone is in on the joke.“Even if some members are using this language ironically, it isn’t the case for all of them,” Jacob explains.“That’s why you have people who go out and commit attacks inspired by it.”

Over the years, that “humour” has spawned something even more sinister. A group of computer scientists have found that the manosphere is growing even more toxic. Their research shows that the forums that discuss topics on the “tamer” edge of the scale (such as men’s rights and ways to pick up women) are losing members who then go on to the more extreme sites, where misogyny and threats of violence go hand in hand, and researchers warn that radicalisation could occur.

The Chad complex

Lucy* has known there is something “off”about her brother for years.“But I didn’t have a word for it back then,” she says. Convinced that men are under attack and that feminism has gone “too far”, he’ll follow Lucy around the house, quoting articles he’s read online at her. “If you ignore him, he’ll get angry and start tossing insults,” she says.“We’ve got into really heated arguments, but since he’s family, it’s not as though I can just hit the block button or unfriend him.”Furious outbursts aside, Lucy’s brother tends to keep his vitriol online. “He’s mostly just talk,” she says. “Sure, he can get scary, but I don’t think he’d actually go and attack someone.” The main source of his anger is that women “only want big, muscular men”, and because he’s overweight, he thinks he would never get a girlfriend. Yet, Lucy says, he never actually tries to meet anyone.

incel forums what happens on them

This strikes a chord with Jack who says he would “constantly claim I couldn’t get a girl, but meanwhile I was never trying to meet [any]. Mostly it had to do with my lack of self- esteem,” he explains. “I didn’t believe I could be successful with women because I was rejected when I was younger. That feeling of being lesser can stick with you into adulthood.” Is it this that turns a man into an incel? Loneliness? Isolation? Online communities are a natural place to turn to find others like you who understand. The forums are full of those who were bullied or faced rejection early on. Liam,* a 29-year-old from the Midlands, has suffered from anxiety and depression for years. He is also 5ft 5in, which he says seriously hurts his chances of finding someone to date. Online he can moan about that freely with others who can relate. Like Jack, he also insists that being an incel isn’t about hating women.“I don’t hate [them],” Liam says, when I ask him. “I think they’re far more privileged in the West than they like to believe, but I don’t hate them.”

So what about the men on these forums who clearly do hate women? “They’re lashing out at the people who won’t give them a chance,” Liam says. “They just need someone to blame.”

As the weeks pass, I see a lot of this. There are hundreds of guys spending their days in front of computer screens, looking for “someone to blame”; citing Chads and Stacys as the reason for their isolation, but never actually interacting with any of them. In a way, it is understandable. After all, it is so much easier to think the outside world is responsible for your unhappiness rather than looking inwards. The forums are littered with comments such as “looking for a girlfriend, no ugly, fat girls”, with posters failing to see the hypocrisy of their words.

And while there are female incels, it’s thought to be more prevalent in men because of society’s attitudes towards what “makes” someone a man. “There’s a toxic narrative that says men who aren’t having sex are less ‘masculine,’” explains Dr Jonathan Pointer, chartered clinical psychologist and psychotherapist. “This leads them to feel separate from others in society. When male incels then discover that there are others who think like them, this false sense of normalisation is empowering. In addition, because they want to be accepted, they tend to attempt to do so by exaggerating their thoughts and behaviours to fit in.”

incel forums what happens on them

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“These forums act as a support structure,” Jacob Davey adds. “The issue is that this particular support structure is inherently self-destructive.”

These men are using inceldom as a kind of counselling, and it isn’t working as they’re seeking advice from a rage-filled echo chamber. They’ll post pictures of themselves, getting others to rate their looks, and the chain of insults that follows then reinforces the idea that the individual will never be loved or accepted. To succeed in the dating game, other incels advise them to “looksmaxx” or “statusmaxx” – telling them how to improve their appearance or make money. Some even turn to plastic surgery, having their jaws shaved and ribs removed to replicate the “Chads” they hate. Everything they do to “get” women is surface level, never looking into how they treat people or trying to address why they think women’s bodies are theirs to own. They assume that men who treat women more respectfully are “white-knighting”, faking niceness in order to get them into bed. It’s frustrating watching them go round in circles: when I dare to suggest to Liam that it could be a lack of confidence in himself that’s the reason he’s not getting dates, he snaps, “You only say that because you’re a Chad.”

Leaving incels behind

After the Alek Minassian attack, Jack became a rare spokesperson for the community. His podcast discussing inceldom attracted media attention, and he used it as an opportunity to let the world know that not all incels were bad; not everyone on the forums was a Rodger or a Minassian. This did not go down well. The message boards rebuked what he was saying, calling him a “normie” and not a “true” incel. Meanwhile, being “out” and talking to the very people he had once rallied against, Jack began to realise he had to leave the incel community. He announced his departure in a YouTube video and received a lot of abuse.

He’s now in a better place. He’s dating, for one thing. He looks back on his time with the incels as, in his own words, “melodramatic” and “overblown”.“I misjudged how ugly I was, how capable I was,” he says. “Life is not as bad as I made it out to be.” Lucy thinks this is true for most incels.“My brother has a lack of self-awareness and motivation to better himself,” she says. “But I think that [incels] have to be the ones who decide to change. You can only do so much for them.”

incel forums what happens on them

But as these men sit at home, letting their feelings fester, anger slowly rising until it spills over into the real world, we have to decide if we’re prepared to take the risk to leave them to it. Even if they don’t go that far, the sort of violent rhetoric that spews out daily from their keyboards does harm. Research by Amnesty International found that one in five women have experienced abuse or harassment through social media. Of those who had experienced it, more than a quarter had received direct or indirect threats of physical or sexual violence, and almost half had experienced sexist or misogynistic abuse. More than half subsequently experienced stress, anxiety and panic attacks in their daily lives. And much of this abuse was from strangers: only 27% knew the offender. In a world where we are now constantly online, this sort of abuse needs to be given attention. We should not only be concentrating on violent attacks when they physically happen. Today the internet is our reality. Abuse played out on screen has tangible consequences.

So what’s the solution? Social networks are continually updating their guidelines (Reddit has banned a number of the original groups where incels thrived), while Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google and TikTok have been working with the Web Foundation, an organisation founded by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Rosemary Leith, in a new project alongside women’s rights groups created to devise new methods of curbing online harassment, starting with abuse against women. Alongside this, Jack thinks we need to recognise that loneliness and anger are the route in.“I think there should be some efforts made to at least try to get some of these guys into group therapy,” he says.

I’d thought about what my final post would be for a while, how I’d out myself as the Chad I am. “Ha-ha, got you”, that kind of thing. Then I realise: I could just… not write anything. After all, what would that post achieve? I’d just be stoking the fire. Another person mocking them. Another fucking Chad. So, instead, I type one short message: “I’m going to stop posting,” I say, to no one in particular. “I’m going to go outside instead. I think it will make me realise things aren’t so bad. I think you guys should do the same.” Cheesy, yes. Unlikely to work, probably. More likely to get me mocked, castigated, banned. I wouldn’t know. I post it, then I delete my account. I close my laptop. And I go outside. ◆