But, Do They Really Hate Women? The Radicalization and Deradicalization of Incels
How did a supportive community of individuals who expressed healthy concerns about loneliness morph into an environment that has inspired violent terrorist attacks? This phenomenon is present in many online communities, but the “incel” community is an interesting case study that highlights larger trends about the radicalization and deradicalization process out of extremist ideologies.
The term “incel” refers to a community of people who engage in involuntary celibacy. The incel community of the 1990s and 2000s is radically different from the community today, which directly contributed to the 2018 Toronto terrorist attack that killed ten people and wounded sixteen. The radicalization process began with attracting specific members into a community creating an echo chamber of increasingly more deranged logic to rationalize their loneliness.
A paper by Guri Nordtorp Mølmen and Jacob Aasland Ravndal finds that the internet facilitates radicalization by information provision, group polarization, and an environment that through repetition, extreme violence is easily amplified. They define online radicalization as “a process by which individuals through interactions with and exposures to various types of internet content come to adopt beliefs that not only justify violence but compel it to the point where these beliefs are translated into violent action.” While the internet facilitates radicalization, offline push-factors are necessary for the radicalization process to occur. These offline factors allow the online messages to have a larger impact on the user. This is prevalent in incel communities where stories of personal trauma are shared to establish a sense of shared commonalities.
Six primary mechanisms can explain how online radicalization occurs. These mechanisms are compensation, isolation, facilitation, acceleration, echoing, and action triggering. Some of these mechanisms are connected to the pre-radicalization phase, which looks at pre-existing aspects in one’s life that could make them more vulnerable to views projected in online communities, such as the incel community. Other mechanisms are more strongly correlated with the radicalization phase, where the individual has now been influenced by extreme online content. Finally, some mechanisms are demonstrated in the operational phase where violent thoughts translate into actions, such as individual physical attacks against women or terrorist attacks where many people are harmed, in the case study of incels.
The first mechanism, compensation, is when “an individual [tries] to compensate for offline vulnerabilities through an alternative online presence.” This occurs in the pre-radicalization phase. The second mechanism, isolation, is when social alienation in the real world leads one to desire social inclusion in an online setting. Facilitation, the third mechanism, explains how the online sphere can siphon one into extremists circles rapidly. Echoing is the
fourth mechanism. Echoing works by having “constant interaction with people who hold similar and similarly extreme views as oneself [and amplifying and reinforcing] radical beliefs and [legitimizing] violent action.” The fifth mechanism of acceleration highlights how the internet can accelerate a radicalization process that would have been slower in real-time. “Action triggering, [the sixth mechanism], refers to the moment that creates the impetus to commit acts of political violence.”
The primary assumption that permeates our discussion of extremist communities is that individuals who are radicalized are fundamentally different from normal people. When, in reality, it is remarkable how psychologically normal most inhabitants of these communities are. For example, terrorists are usually individuals who have faced unfair humiliation and then search for an avenue that “can restore their feelings of value and worth.” Many incels are men and boys who have been unable to find permanent sexual partners. This predicament is not inherently unique, as many people are still searching for life partners. What differs these individuals from mainstream society is how they handle feelings of loneliness or past trauma. The need, which motivates violence, the narrative, which justifies this violence, and the social network that will promote extremism is what lead incels to hold horrific values towards women or other people who have caused past harm, such as a former partner cheating on them or a breakup.
Some incels believe in “the blackpill” which is “a fundamental rejection of women’s sexual emancipation, labeling women shallow, cruel creatures who will choose only the most attractive men if given the choice.” Furthermore, incels believe they are doomed for sexual failure and loneliness because biological traits, such as a jawline, will determine their sexual success and that Western society has developed a sexual class system. The incel community takes young boys or men who have experienced a shared sense of trauma related to the inability to find a sexual partner and draws them to a community that promotes hate but also, “people [to] [...] commiserate with, virtual friends who swapped jokes and memes that helped everyone get through the day.” The modern incel community is frightening because universal traumas are manipulated into “misogynistic rage.”
While the incel community is terrifying, escaping this community is possible. Deradicalization refers to how “terrorists are unmade” whether they have committed acts of violence or condoned acts of violence. The key to deradicalization is when an organization or community no longer provides the satisfaction of personal significance. “Disillusionment with the leaders and other group members were identified as the most important reasons for leaving among extremists.” To help people escape the incel community, rather than shame them and question their morality, we need to remind them of it. Showing people the value of real-world relationships can help crack the illusion of security created by an online hateful community. We need to tell people, even incels, that they have value, remind them that kindness and compensation rather than hate and discrimination are what will bring them true happiness.