April 3, 2021
While the incel movement has existed for decades, the community’s growth and attention increased in 2020. Mass attacks have previously been connected to the incel ideology in California, Florida, and Toronto, with the attack in Toronto, leaving 10 dead and 16 injured. As a result of the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, people are forced to stay inside their homes. Since many are spending increasing amounts of time online, there is a greater risk of being exposed to radical and extremist material. For some, the only means to socialize while in lockdown may be online, and the stress of being alone has led many to find comfort in new web-based communities. The incel community acts as a safe space for men and provides an opportunity to share frustrations with like-minded individuals. Frustrations for these men may stem from the difficulty of coping with the world around them and the global pandemic, compounding internal conflicts with their mental health and external conflicts with parents, friends, and, most frequently, women. Due to a growth in the community and extremist sentiments online, there is an increased likelihood of similar attacks over the coming year and into the future.
Incels, short for involuntary celibates, “are heterosexual men who blame women and society for their lack of romantic success” and are a subsection of the Manosphere (which is the collection of social media movements aiming to counteract feminism). These movements popularized phrases such as “red pill,” “black pill,” and “blue pill”—a reference to The Matrix—to categorize belief systems. “Blue pillers'' are those who continue to live in the perceived ignorance and old way of life, while those who take the “red pill” are aware of global truths. ‘Black pillers’ accept these truths as unchangeable and their fates ultimately bleak. Similar to Elliot Rodger, who killed six people in Isla Vista, California, in an attack aimed at a sorority house, ‘black-pillers’ are most likely to commit acts of violence. Black-piller incels believe that their future is doomed to lifelong loneliness, increasing their likelihood of killing and dying for a cause they believe in, such as retributions against women.
Locked-down and Lonely
COVID-19 has forced many to turn to the virtual sphere for some type of relationship, further exacerbating loneliness, especially in those who already may have struggled to make connections. As seen with online dating applications, such as Tinder or Bumble, users are rapidly swiped on based on profile images, which bias users towards looks and not personality. Additionally, Bumble includes a feature that requires the female to message first when there is a successful connection. Online dating apps also allow either party to disconnect and/or block the other, which is not directly ‘possible’ in physical dating. This, coupled with an increased number of users due to COVID-19, results in a larger pool of users which can generate increased pickiness within these apps. As a result, both men and women are likely to experience frustration, leading to anger, turning to other frustrated individuals, and ultimately radicalizing into an ‘incel’ mindset. As seen with social media, as individual users' rhetoric changes, sites like Facebook begin to feed users similar articles and sentiments, possibly fomenting radicalization.
Although dating apps have become the norm, incels often only find rejection. Analysis shows that the incel community blames their lack of attractiveness, muscularity, and perceived masculinity for their failure on both apps and in-person dating, as seen in the screenshot below. Even more so, they blame these perceived failures on women. Incels accuse women of denying men their well-earned and deserved the right to sex, forcing them to become involuntary celibates. Incels also blame the culture of feminism and recent women’s movements for their inability to find and engage with sexually willing women. For instance, men in the incel community believe that the #MeToo and related growing feminism movements demonized and ultimately viewed men as ‘unworthy’ of sex and love from females.
COVID and Dating
As the name states, incels are not celibate voluntarily, and ultimately their anger is targeted towards those they perceive to be responsible for their celibacy. On one of the spectrum, some sub-groups openly promote masturbation as a means to control hormone levels in the body, enabling them to think clearly without interference and intrusion of sexual thoughts. On this side, sub-groups also permit members to frequent prostitution and escort services. However, the more extreme sub-groups in the spectrum believe that any form of sexual release is subjecting themselves to the objects of sexual desire. The stricter groups define true incels as “kissless, hugless, handholdless virgin” (KHHV). Overall, the ideology centers on women enjoying too much power and control in the realm of sexuality and romanticism. For incels, women destroy the lives of these men by rejecting companionship and physical comfort. Additionally, individuals in the incel movement and broader Manosphere operate in tight circles, creating echo chambers that enhance, develop, and reinforce their ideology resulting in some of the more extreme sects of the incel ideology.
The range within the incel ideology makes it challenging to track and ultimately prosecute following attacks, such as the Toronto attack. The movement's acceptance of any men who feel resentment towards women, either extreme or slight, shows just how widespread the ideology is and ultimately how accepting it can be and how easy it can be to "recruit" new members. Men who feel that they have been wronged by women - either by a lack of sexual interactions, a large number of rejections, or perceived to be mistreated - can easily find comfort in the incel community with other males who had similar experiences. Once within the community, which predominantly operates online in either forums or Facebook groups, they can connect to others with more extreme views and further radicalize within the community through these echo chambers.
While incels primarily rail against women, they also target the “Chads'' - the men who get all the women - who they believe interfere with their opportunities with women by reinforcing eugenic norms, or target “simps,' - ' those who are perceived to be submissive or subservient to women. The incel community also rages against “Stacys,” a term referring to the hyperfeminine and the perceived ideal woman. Phrases like “p*ssy whipped” are used to describe a man who is perceived to be submissive to women out of an interest in sexual attention or activity. These phrases were recently replaced by words like “simp,” which historically stands for “simpleton,” to refer to a man who begs or grovels for attention from a female, and culturally stands for “Sucker Idolising Mediocre P*ssy.” This person is usually classified as more of the stereotypical “nice guy” persona. In the common cultural characterization of a simp, the female does not return their affection. Although the ‘simp’ vocabulary began in the incel community, it is rapidly seeping into mainstream media and culture.
While its use within a mainstream culture may not intend to share the negative connotations as its origin, or even be aware of it, this evolution shows how popular the incel ideology and language have become. It also raises concerns about the normalization of incel words, leading to desensitization and lack of awareness of their true meaning inside the incel community. Some consequences of this are promoting the incel ideology indirectly as well as allowing incel community members to hide in plain sight. Similar to how previously racial terms could denote a racist, the normalization or open use of certain words has created a blurred area between racism and using common slang, allowing people to joke and protect themselves easily. A comparable situation could begin to occur here with incel slang. The deep-rooted connection to some of these words is not known as part of the incel community as it is still growing in popularity. Still, as it grows, words begin to normalize, and others start to sympathize or connect with the ideology. Consequently, the incel movement could rapidly grow and further escalate into more frequent and violent attacks.
Radicalization to Violence
The Anti-Defamation League found “the label of incel adopted now describes much more than loneliness or singledom, including the subset of incels who are consumed by homicidal rage.” While not all incels are violent, there are individuals and sub-groups in the incel community who threaten violence, carry out attacks, and are interested in doing so in the future. One of the most notorious incel attacks was committed in 2014 by Elliot Rodger, who killed six people in Isla Vista, California. Rodger targeted more than just women, taking the lives of perceived “Chads.” Before his killing spree, Rodger released a lengthy manifesto in which he expressed his frustrations towards women and the perceived “success” of other men who made him feel inferior.
Rodger’s attack saw varying responses from the incel community. Individuals like Alek Minassian, responsible for the incel-related Toronto van attack in 2018 that killed ten and injured another sixteen people, were inspired by Rodger’s YouTube channel and killing spree. Incel forum posters show support for Rodger’s actions with subtitles under profiles using phrases like “Praise saint Elliot Rodger.” The ongoing trial of an incel charged with intending to commit a terrorist attack in Scotland presented evidence the defendant “was ‘very fixated on (almost idolizing) Elliot Rodger and he feels just like him.” As seen with other extremism and violence types, further attackers idolize and try to copycat those who take drastic actions or are the first of their kind, such as Timothy McVeigh.
However, on the opposite end of the spectrum, some incels on online forums express a refusal to Rodger through memes, either poking fun at him or arguing how they do not condone his actions. This shows a clear division among the incel community and a lack of uniformity in their ideal. Additionally, some members see Rodger’s attack as a reaction to the exploitation of incels and the negative attention towards the community, rather than an attack on behalf of the incel ideology as a whole. However, based on further analysis, it appears that this may be an attempt by the group to avoid attention, not to be seen as extreme, while promoting those forms of violence. Statements by incels show explicit hate against women and interest in violence one way or another with moderate to high levels of support of violent action.
There are various concerns of further factors that could trigger an escalation to violence in the incel community. This includes the general proliferation of the feminist movement and increases in “feminazis” - women who are radical feminists - as well as a massive increase of women in positions of authority and power, such as within businesses or government. As the feminist movement gains power, women have a higher opportunity to show strength and unity by pushing and demanding equality. An increase in the general feminist movement may result in increased pushback from the incel community.
Additionally, the rise in the “femcel” ideology and movement, or female involuntary celibates, is causing anger within the incel community. Incels do not believe women can be involuntary celibates and feel the attention is being taken away from their cause with previous clashes online within forums. It is also postulated that men possibly made the femcel ideology to further radicalize and recruit others by displaying a more extreme woman attempting to steal the attention away from incels. This could trigger some members of the incel community to a more radical path that can potentially result in physical violence.
Profile of an Incel
Talia Lavin, author of “Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy,” created an account to infiltrate the Manosphere by creating the fictional, kissless, 21-year-old virgin Tommy O’Hara. Levin describes him as lacking social skills and confused by the young women who surround him, which leads Tommy to seek more information and sympathy from those who think like him and share his experience. ‘Tommy’ learned through online forums that he is involuntarily celibate because women, brainwashed by feminists, were starving him of the sex and attention he deserved. Lavin created the identity intending to infiltrate the social media chat rooms of misogynistic white supremacists to learn their process of radicalization. In her book, she says that while she was sympathetic to the “social isolation and erotic frustration” that drove incels and white supremacists towards radicalization, the violent rage she found in the forums erased any empathy she may have felt for them.
Generally, incels fit Tommy’s profile: socially awkward and confused about sexual or romantic affairs. In a popular self-assessment spreading on Twitter to “Honestly Rate [Themselves],” incels generally score high in intelligence and trustworthiness but low in social skills and attractiveness. Incels often express pride in their honest and brutal introspection. Physically, incels often describe themselves as unattractive, and they broadly still believe there may be hope for them to break out of celibacy through physical transformation. Websites such as LooksMax.me and Lookism.net are dedicated to improving men’s physical appearance to meet the perceived sexual standard of a strong jawline, high cheekbones, and full facial hair.
However, upon analysis of various Facebook groups and chat spaces of the incel community, profile images of users are not always culturally unattractive. While some users may use false images within Facebook groups, various user images were confirmed to be connected to the account. Their profile images displayed a culturally attractive male; however, some of these users had posted self-deprecating comments about their looks. Based on their looks and former terms provided, they could be classified as “Chads.” Still, they self-identified with the incel community due to previous rejections or a lack of loyalty from women they felt should have been subservient to them. This shows the overlap between white male supremacists, who traditionally believe in women's submissive roles while being conventionally attractive, and the incel community who has negative self-thoughts and perceives themselves as mistreated. The overlap demonstrates that the incel ideology is based on self-perception within the broader sphere.
Nevertheless, incels, and all the Manosphere communities, are reasonably inclusive to other nationalities and races, breaking the perceived image that incels are always white or a predominantly white community. This throws into question the level of involvement of white supremacy because of the levels of inclusivity. Some of the most active members within various Facebook groups were not white and predominantly Black. According to two polls by Incels.co and Braincels, only half of their user base is white. The perceived image of incels being white hinders potential counter operations due to an incorrect profile. While previous violent actions have been all carried out by white men up to date, there have only been a handful of violent incidents.
Is Incel Violence Terrorism?
Even though the majority of incels are non-violent or “shitposters,” the CTG Extremism Team concludes that incel violence should be classified as terrorism, based on the attacks by Elliot Rodger’s in California in 2014, the Toronto van attack in 2018, and the 2020 deadly stabbing at an erotic massage parlor. In cyber environments where men feel cornered, angry at women, and isolated from society, it is challenging to discern who will radicalize and commit violence. The creation of incel echo chambers allows their vulnerabilities to be exploited, and as previous incidents have displayed, weapons or guns are not always necessary. Individuals are content with using vehicles to attack female and even male pedestrians. Domestic terrorism is defined as “violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.” Because of their escalation towards violence and interest in committing further violence, these groups are now falling under the definition.
Combatting domestic terrorism has traditionally been challenging, especially in the United States. However, Canada’s step in the Toronto van attack and prosecution with terrorism charges was a strong step to condemn this ideology’s violent actions. Due to the wide range within the group, law enforcement and intelligence interests should begin to monitor or even infiltrate groups in the incel community to watch for a change in sentiment and rhetoric. Incel is a relatively new ideology, rapidly growing and shifting, which means it is not well understood like more traditional forms of terrorism or other ideologies like white supremacy. Like other extremist groups and ideologies, increased awareness should be promoted, including some potential warning signs, key phraseology connected to the group that could be a dog whistle, and possible community engagement. The incel ideology stems from a lack of connection and relationships, so promoting individuals' ability to get the necessary support regarding intimacy and relationships instead of turning to the internet (which can lead to radicalization) may further turn away men from this community.
What Is Next?
Incels may interpret the recent appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court and the status of abortion protections as government validation of their beliefs, precisely, the idea that females should have less autonomy and freedom of choice. Since the Supreme Court is now at a solidified conservative majority, this may lead to a reversal of Roe v. Wade (1973), the case that affirmed women’s independence and advocated abortion access. If the female-rights case is overturned, incels may perceive conservative restrictions as righteous punishment for females and feminism, as well as a push to return to traditional gender roles along with minimal freedom for women.
However, despite the potential reversal of Roe v. Wade (1973), the first woman's election to the office of Vice President of the United States may undermine the incel movement as it places a woman in a position of power, which incels may perceive as a challenge. Incels may increase their rhetoric and interest in violence, as seen in the image below, with Kamala Harris as a primary target. In the eyes of the incel community, her election may embolden women in their fight for equality and strength, thereby forcing incels further into alienation, helplessness, and vilification.
Response to Vice-President Elect Kamala Harris
Comments began surfacing on the Incels.co Twitter page expressing concern with the Biden-Harris campaign’s rhetoric to end online harassment, understood as a direct threat to these incel groups, as seen in the image above. Such comments and actions may lead individuals in the incel community to move to other platforms that may not be ultimately regulated and cannot be as easily monitored, as well as be potentially interested in more extreme actions. Although some incels may only be “shitposters,” their threats of violence need to be taken seriously because violent incel-terrorists like Rodger and Minassian must be stopped.
The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) Extremism Team will continue to monitor the growing threat of incel terrorism as pandemic lockdowns continue, which forced and continue to force individuals to isolate and turn to the internet for connection and comfort. Further research and analysis with the Behavioral and Leadership Team may provide more insight into who is susceptible to joining this community and radicalizing to acts of terror, especially as the movement grows in size and scope since the outbreak of COVID-19. Specifically, the new US presidential administration’s interest in combating cyber threats will likely increase monitoring of individuals and these incel groups, assisting in defeating this threat. Law enforcement should attempt to infiltrate the online community to identify incels who are likely to commit violence and stop them from carrying out any more attacks. The CTG Extremism Team will continue to monitor the incel community online, as the recent social media purge of extremist groups may motivate incels to turn to other platforms or change their language and phrases between members to avoid detection.
______________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)
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