THE ROLE OF SOCIAL MEDIA IN ADVANCING VIOLENT INCEL EXTREMISM
Updated: Sep 2
Charley Gleeson, Christie Hui, Counter Threat Strategic Communication (CTSC) Team
Week of Monday, August 16, 2021
Protest to Counter Male Violence Against Women
The threat of incel violence has gradually accelerated since the creation of the incel community and cases of incel violence show a trend of increasingly indiscriminate attacks. As a core method of communication, online ideology sharing is integral to the incel community and often contains themes of extreme misogyny and sexism. This communication is also tied to other violent extremist ideologies such as White Supremacism. The cycle of hero worship is dominant in incel ideology as shown through references to infamous incel attackers in manifestos and suicide letters of their contemporary counterparts. While incel ideology is not considered a terrorist ideology in most countries under current counterterrorism laws, it is clear that the trend of incel-based and related violence presents a significant threat throughout North America and Europe, though the threat is not confined to these regions. Social media companies should be at the forefront of addressing incel ideologies online to reduce the spread and impact of online communications which contribute to the radicalization and mobilization of incel actors. Current measures against incel messaging have proven ineffective and it is vital that social media companies are aware of their role in detecting incel content to prevent future violence. Social media companies should look to expand their current extremism counter-measures to include incel ideologies and violent content.
The term “incel” is an abbreviation for “involuntary celibate,” defined as a person who is unable to attract a romantic or sexual partner despite desiring one. While the term is now predominantly used to describe men, the term “incel” was first coined by a woman in 1997, who started an online forum for people who were struggling with romantic and sexual inactivity. The incel community quickly gained traction and has remained a prominent community on the internet since its inception; this is likely due to the ability of the community to grow between various social media platforms and forum pages. The incel community began as a non-judgemental forum for like-minded individuals, but the evolution of incel ideology has since heavily incorporated elements of violent extremism. Frequently filled with misogynistic rhetoric, incel ideology primarily appears to radicalize young men with an ideology that aims to portray social interactions with others in a negative way; this is likely furthered by the incorporation of White Supremacist and xenophobic views. The use of code names, such as “Chad” and “Stacy” to refer to sexually active and desired individuals, is likely to create a divide between the incel community and those outside the community, further isolating them from outside relations. This isolation felt by many in the incel community is likely enhanced by the prominence of an out-group, which likely leads to those incels engaging in more incel content, further radicalizing them into a misogynistic mindset. The creation of group cohesion and identity within the incel community has likely allowed the community to thrive without requiring the basis of traditional group structure. In similarity to far-right terrorist groups, the incel community appears to operate as part of a decentralized resistance, with online platforms serving as the home base, without any formal leadership. This most likely increases the threat of the incel community as there is a higher probability of lone-actor-style attacks, similar to far-right terrorist groups.
There is friction within the incel community between those who believe they can better themselves and eventually find a sexual partner (known as those who take the “red pill”) and those who believe they have no control over the social hierarchy and will never find a sexual partner (known as those who take the “black pill”). The “black pill” view as an absolutist, fixed ideology is more likely to result in violent attacks due to the influence of violent misogynistic messaging, a nihilistic worldview, and inflexible thinking. Misogyny is apparent through the vast majority of current incel ideology, but the “black pill” view likely contains more violent messages of female subversion and male dominance due to the absolutist perspective. These messages may be between private members of the community, on public forums, or through meme culture. The “black pill” view contains messages about rejecting female sexual emancipation and likely contributes towards rape culture by supporting the idea that women should be used by men. The violent and misogynistic messages within the “black pill” view are likely the foundation to understanding how this ideology evolves into physical violence. While there is a possibility that “red pill” beliefs may also become violent, the nihilistic and absolutist messages in the “black pill” ideology appear more likely to become violent due to the prominence of inflexible thinking and the innately negative perspective.
The first documented violent attack hailed by current incels occurred in 1989, in which Marc Lepine targeted and killed 14 women at Montreal’s École Polytechnique. For analytic purposes, this case will be treated as a case of incel violence, because despite the lack of the word “incel,” there is a clear ideological overlap which is supported by current incel hero worship of Lepine. Before carrying out the attack, Lepine wrote a suicide letter about how male and female feminists enraged him. This suicide letter has since been considered a manifesto due to the clear ideological motivation and goals established within the letter. Lepine’s manifesto stated his misogynistic motivations and depicted his hatred towards women, likely allowing him to be perceived as a hero by those who subscribe to the black pill view of nihilism in regard to finding a romantic or sexual partner. For some, this relatability can validate their misogynistic views, encouraging them to blame women and other men for their unfulfilled needs and the societal hierarchy that exists. The internal and external validation from their “red” and “black pill” community members very likely allows them to act on their anger and jealousy and strengthens connections with those who share the same beliefs. With the start of the online community in 1997, male users, who may have secretly or unconsciously praised Lepine’s actions, likely felt safe communicating their thoughts and feelings to each other on the first incel online forum. Those who unintentionally applauded Lepine could have discovered the meaning behind their feelings through interactions with other users. Increasing frequency of online interactions and level of comfort is likely to lead to users adopting more extreme, misogynistic beliefs.
Before killing six people in Isla Vista, California in 2014, Elliot Rodger wrote a manifesto detailing his anger at women and uploaded a YouTube video promising retribution. Since his death, Rodger has been perceived as a hero by the incel community, being referred to as the “Supreme Gentleman,” and has influenced other incels to carry out attacks, including Alek Minassian. The emotions and beliefs in Rodger’s written and online manifesto likely serve as an inspiration to others. Rodger’s decision to upload the materials to public platforms most likely widened the audience range to potentially include current incel community members and others who share similar beliefs. With public platforms, it is very likely that the content could be shared, saved, and reuploaded to different platforms. The focus on anger and necessary retribution are likely to reinforce the idea that individuals are entitled to punish those who anger or upset them, potentially motivating them to commit acts of violence. The widespread admiration for Rodger from the incel community could invoke feelings of envy in individuals who may desire to gain similar positive attention and praise posthumously. This desire could prompt individuals to create a new legacy by attempting to overshadow Rodger through more violent and fatal attacks.
Most recently on August 12, 2021, Jake Davison committed a mass shooting in Plymouth, England, in which he shot and killed five people, three females and two males, and then himself. Davison was a self-proclaimed incel, was prominent on online incel forums, was subscribed to the “black pill” perspective within the incel community, and his frequent posting of “black pill” content likely spread to a large incel audience. There is very likely an increase in apparent trends among these cases of mass murder-suicide by those subscribing to the “black pill” incel ideology. Furthermore, this trend appears to include indiscriminate violence, as Lepine, Rodger, and Davison all had indiscriminate primary targets, despite Lepine ultimately killing only his female victims. This could be due to the “black pill” incel ideology actualizing as more misanthropic, instead of solely misogynistic, during the commission of the crimes. As there doesn’t appear to be a specific target type presented within “black pill” violence, it is highly likely that “black pill” violence presents an indiscriminate threat. The hero worship shown within the incel community also likely links into this trend, in which current incels idolize past attackers. While this may stay confined to the internet, far-right extremists have shown the threat of copycat attacks, and it is more than likely that the “black pill” believers will also continue the hero worship of idolized individuals to the point of carrying out similar attacks. Therefore, the trends of murder-suicide, hero worship, and indiscriminate violence all present a higher threat when linked to “black pill” incel ideology.
The map below shows the occurrences of incel violence on an international scale. The subdivisions shown with a solid color have confirmed cases of violent attacks based on incel ideology. The subdivisions shown with horizontal stripes have cases of violent attacks which are incel-related but are not primarily based on incel ideology. Those highlighted in green have had a single event of incel or incel-related violence, whereas those shown with blue and red have two and three occurrences, respectively. As shown in the map below, incel ideology has spread mostly through English-speaking countries, such as the US, the UK, and Canada. This is most likely due to English being the lingua franca of the internet, where the vast majority of incel ideology is spread. There have been instances of incel violence in traditionally non-English speaking countries, such as Germany, however, as English is taught in public primary and secondary schools in Germany, it is likely that the use of English in the incel community is also prevalent within Germany and other countries where English is taught as a second language. The locations of violent incidents show how incel-based ideology has spread to a wider audience through online interaction. The occurrences of physical incel violence also indicate that the threat of incel violence is not confined to only online activity. The acceleration of incel violence over the past 25 years is of significant threat on a global scale, and the offline threat is built on incel ideology which is spread and communicated online. The link between “black pill” incel ideology to fatal, violent attacks more than likely indicates that there is a need to take effective action against violent incel ideology, with a specific focus on social media activity. There is currently no country that includes incel ideology as part of their terrorism legislation, indicating that the likelihood of implementing comprehensive countermeasures against “black pill” incel ideology is less probable. Without including incel ideology in terrorism legislation, counterterrorism efforts are unlikely to perceive incel ideology as a priority and conduct proactive countermeasures.
Incel Violence 1989-2021
There is legal precedent based on case law in some countries, such as in the 2020 case of a Canadian teenager who was convicted under existing terrorism legislation after stabbing two people and killing one other person based on terrorist intent. In contrast, Malik Sanchez was an incel who was charged with conveying false and misleading information in a February 2021 bomb threat, but a direct link between his beliefs and the crime did not amount to terrorism. Despite being unable to prove the ideology-action link, it is still likely that an effective prosecution of violence or threat of violence is possible. As such, by incorporating incel ideology into existing counterterrorism legislation, it is likely that social media platforms will have the legal foundation to address the threat of incel violence at its core. If existing counterterrorism and counter-extremism legislation can be adapted to include “black pill” incel ideology, it increases the likelihood that social media platforms can implement the measures necessary to counter incel violence. A defined legal foundation also sets a standard for social media platforms, which will likely prompt platforms to create consistent countermeasures. Having consistent policies across multiple platforms removes opportunities for users to upload to multiple platforms or re-upload to other platforms. These future policies may be based on the employment of Artificial Intelligence to detect incel content, flag incel content to users, and remove incel content that pertains to violent action.
The existing countermeasures provided by social media platforms against the spread of incel ideology are a good starting point but have yet to prove effective in mitigating the threat of violence, as shown in the recent attacks. These countermeasures include moderating reported content under existing hate speech rules, as and when it occurs. Facebook has recently implemented a function for users to report both extremist content and other users who are posting or engaging with extremist content. This moderation is generally only as effective as its user base and relies primarily on user reporting of offensive content, so if users are unaware or act in defiance of the rules surrounding incel content, they are less likely to report it, allowing the content to be spread further and become more readily available. By relying on other users to report content, personal bias will likely influence reporting, which will almost certainly lead to less incel content being reported for moderation. Users are unlikely to report content that they relate to because they may not find it offensive or harmful. This will likely make the overall strategy of user reporting only partially effective, which shows there is a need for other countermeasures to be used in conjunction.
As Reddit has provided a strong breeding ground for incel ideology in the past, their countermeasures have had the largest impact on the incel community. After banning the subreddits “r/incels,” “r/theblackpill,” and “r/braincels,” users of these forums migrated to user-created and less moderated platforms to ensure they could maintain contact with others in the incel community. The lack of cross-platform coordination likely contributed to the ease in which the incel community is moving to other sites, with less moderation, and resuming their previous activities. The migration onto less regulated platforms has potentially allowed for an echo chamber effect to form, in which those who seek to view incel content can engage with this ideology without having to view any counter messages or be dissuaded from viewing the content. Therefore, by simply banning the incel community and providing no further resources, existing countermeasures to incel ideology are likely to actually contribute to the spread of incel ideology and allow for a more cohesive and contained incel community.
As the primary method of communication for the incel community is online, it is the Counter Threat Strategic Communication (CTSC) Team’s conclusion that social media companies are at the forefront of monitoring, regulating, and preventing incel content. Having analyzed the threat posed by incel ideology and finding that previous legal action and current countermeasures against incel ideology have not prevented incel violence, the CTSC Team provides several recommendations to social media companies to assist in mitigating the threat.
Social media platforms should ensure that incel ideology is mentioned in either hate speech or terrorism terms and condition rules to ensure that users are aware of the threat of incel ideology. This will allow social media platforms to have a written regulation of incel content, so they do not seem biased in regulation. Furthermore, this will ensure that when users sign up to the platform, they are aware that incel content is a form of moderated content. If the content is deemed to promote hate, violence, or criminal activity, it should be removed; this should be done as quickly as possible to slow the spread of incel ideology. Platforms may find it beneficial to employ Artificial Intelligence in detecting and flagging incel content, in the same way platforms regulate other extremist content. Any incel content which does not promote hate, violence, or criminal activity should still be moderated and (if necessary) flagged to users as incel content. When incel content is posted, the poster and viewers of the content should be directed to further resources which will seek to increase the media literacy and critical thinking of those engaging with incel content.
Social media companies are businesses that aim to generate income by engaging customers through recommended content, which should be altered when incel content is involved. By recommending incel content, social media companies can create echo chambers, in which the incel community can operate without input from other communities. Therefore, social media companies should not recommend incel content to any users, even if those users have engaged with or posted incel content in the past. This will aim to reduce the engagement with incel content, which will lessen the impact of the incel ideology.
As shown in the case studies presented in this analysis, publicly available “manifesto”-style suicide letters present a high threat level as they are generally posted immediately before a violent attack. If this type of content is identified, it should be immediately moderated. Identifying this content and ensuring it is reported to law enforcement is imperative to reducing the impact of violent incel-based activity. This will require collaboration between social media companies and law enforcement agencies.
In the long term, social media platforms should work with government and non-governmental organizations to ensure that effective counter-radicalization schemes can be employed for those at risk of developing violent incel ideology, or who are already indoctrinated into incel ideology. These counter-radicalization schemes may be in the form of counter-messaging, specific targeting, or may mimic existing counter-radicalization schemes. By collaborating with both government and non-government organizations, a more cohesive approach to countering incel ideology and preventing violent extremism can be achieved.
The Counterterrorism Group’s (CTG) Counter Threat Strategic Communication (CTSC) Team will continue to analyze the spread of incel ideology and the resilience of the incel community online. The CTSC Team will also monitor the online prominence of incel ideology and evaluate existing countermeasures against the incel community, with a focus on “black pill” beliefs. The Counterintelligence and Cyber (CICYBER) Team will monitor incel-related hacking and insider threats that may develop. The Extremism Team will focus on the translation of communicative action to physical violence, and how incel ideology poses a physical threat on a global scale. At the regional level, the EUCOM Team, NORTHCOM Team, and PACOM Team will monitor the threat of incel violence and monitor events of violence related to incel ideology. The Worldwide Analysis of Terrorism, Crime, and Hazards (W.A.T.C.H.) Officers and Threat Hunters will continue to monitor the threat posed by the incel community. CTG as a whole will reevaluate existing social media measures, and provide analysis and recommendations in the event of future incel-based violence.
________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)
 “Incel Movement,” Counter Extremism Project, n.d., https://www.counterextremism.com/threat/incel-movement
 ‘Hate is infectious’: how the 1989 mass shooting of 14 women echoes today, The Guardian, December 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/dec/04/mass-shooting-1989-montreal-14-women-killed
 Marc Lépine’s Suicide Note, School Shooters, July 2014, https://schoolshooters.info/sites/default/files/lepine_note_1.1.pdf
 Inside Santa Barbara Killer’s Manifesto, ABC News, May 2014, https://abcnews.go.com/US/inside-santa-barbara-killers-manifesto/story?id=23860511
 Plymouth shooting: Jake Davison liked gun videos and talked about 'incel' in weeks before attack, Sky News, August 2021, https://news-sky-com.cdn.ampproject.org/c/s/news.sky.com/story/amp/plymouth-shooting-man-suspected-of-killing-five-people-and-himself-named-as-jake-davison-23-12380132
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 Reddit Bans ‘Incel’ Group for Inciting Violence Against Women, The New York Times, November 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/09/technology/incels-reddit-banned.htm