Today’s incels are not a clearly defined, organised group, but rather a sprawling, disparate community of men across a network of blogs, forums, websites, private members groups, chatrooms and social media channels. Several of the forums have memberships in the tens of thousands, with around a 25% increase in membership in the two years I have been researching them. And these figures don’t take into account the number of people visiting and being influenced by these sites without necessarily signing up.
Incels subscribe to a transnational ideology characterised by white male supremacy, oppression of women and the glorification and encouragement of male violence. Seeing themselves as perpetual victims oppressed by a “feminist gynocracy”, they believe that sex is their inherent birthright as men, and that rape and murder are appropriate punishments for a society they perceive as withholding sex from them.
The transformation of Alana’s benign self-help community to today’s extremist ideology is in part a result of the environment in which those forums were created. The early Usenet forums were dominated by white men, who grew uncomfortable with the third wave feminist movement. More recently, social media algorithms have led young men to encounter increasingly extreme content. Concepts such as evil women controlling men’s lives or rape being the natural end product of “depriving” men of sex are filtered through viral YouTube videos and memes, appearing across the sites that wallpaper young people’s online environments.
The more frequently they see misogynistic content, the less shocking it seems. After viewing one video, or liking one post, social media platforms feed more content, often more extreme in nature, to users with the aim of maintaining and monetising their attention spans.
Today’s incels are also experts at finding and recruiting young men online. They do not depend on boys coming to them: indeed, many young men I meet whose ideas reflect this ideology have never actually heard of the term “incels”. They are groomed over computer headsets, in gaming strategy chatrooms, via viral videos and funny memes. They are targeted on bodybuilding forums, where extremists know they will find a self-selecting group of boys already anxious about societal notions of tough, traditional masculinity. They find boys where they are most ripe for exploitation, and unless we recognise this for the radicalisation it is, we will not be able to tackle it effectively.