LIFE
26/07/2018 7:46 PM AEST | Updated 28/07/2018 7:40 AM AEST

A Toxic ‘Brotherhood’: Inside Incels’ Dark Online World

This week I received several angry messages after writing an article about involuntarily celibate men, or “incels,” and the misogynist forums where they talk about “looksmaxing.”

Most came from members of these forums, including a man who sent me a sarcasm-riddled email suggesting I could use “some information firsthand.” So I called him.

On the phone, he spoke softly and repeatedly apologized for seeming anxious. “I don’t talk to people often,” he said, asking that I refer to him only as “Eric,” which is not his real name.

Eric, 19, has never had sex. Asked whether he’s ever kissed a girl, he laughed. Like so many other dejected men who populate incel groups, he believes he will be alone forever ― an inescapable fate he blames on his perceived ugliness. He says he feels hopeless, unwanted and deeply angry at women and society for rejecting him.

Lookism.net
Eric posts often on Lookism.net, usually asking for advice on how to enhance his appearance.

Currently unemployed, Eric spends most of his time on incel message boards, including Lookism.net, where he’s known only by his username: “I Already Know I’m Ugly.” Many of his posts there are rife with self-hatred and despair. Others are laced with racism and misogyny.

“I’ll admit that I have gotten very bitter and angry,” he said. “I’ve said angry things, but I’ve never actually wanted to do anything violent.”

Violently misogynist rhetoric is widespread in incel groups, where members routinely talk about a movement to “strike back” at women for depriving them of sex ― something to which many feel entitled. Thousands of lonely men like Eric are drawn in by the allure of camaraderie. But the distorting, echo chamber quality of the internet can fuel radicalization within these networks.

“You feel like brothers to me,” one man wrote to the forum Incels.me in April. “Never before have I felt so loved, or surrounded by people like me.” As is common in the group, his posts became angrier over time ― shifting from queries such as “How do I make friends online?” to lurid descriptions of violent and sexually depraved fantasies, and a threat to commit mass murder. According to his posts, he’s 18 years old. He could not be reached for an interview.

Incel websites are attractive to these men for many reasons. For Eric, they offer access to an empathetic community that he can visit from inside his own home, where he feels most comfortable because no one can see his “subhuman” face.

“I don’t even like most of the people there. They’re very self-centered and you know, they’re kind of assholes. But I guess it’s nice to have someone to talk to,” he said. “That’s mainly why I did this interview ― so I could talk to somebody.”

The Road To Radicalization

While not all men who join incel groups appear to hate women, experts say their toxic forums instill and perpetuate misogyny, self-pity and rage. There, in what can seem like a collective murder fantasy, the idea of an “incel rebellion” or “beta uprising” is pervasive.

Incels.me
An incel encourages other members of incels.me to kill a prominent feminist as an act of political violence.

After a man went on a rampage in Toronto on Sunday, killing a young woman and a 10-year-old girl, incel groups erupted in excitement over the possibility that he was a fellow incel.

“Another hERo?” one man asked the forum Incels.me, emphasizing “ER” in reference to Elliot Rodger, a self-proclaimed incel who killed himself and six others in 2014. “ERs need to get lessons from ISIS on how to kill a ton of people at once,” said another, apparently critiquing the Toronto shooter’s “low” death toll. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, but police said there’s no evidence to support that claim.

Rodger, who was 22 years old at the time of his murder-suicide in Isla Vista, California, spent his short adult life dreaming of ways to punish women for inflicting his “sexual starvation.” He belonged to multiple misogynist forums that, he said, “confirmed many of the theories I had about how wicked and degenerate women really are.”

Rodger is a virtual martyr among radical incels, who cheer each other on as they fantasize about raping and killing women, and emulating his massacre. So far, at least three men who reportedly described him in glorifying terms online have gone on killing sprees. Extremism experts warn that as incel groups proliferate, the threat of another mass murder grows.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hateful ideologies, added “male supremacy” groups including incels to its hate map earlier this year.

“We saw how many of the individuals in the groups that we traditionally track ― white nationalists, neo-Nazis and so on ― were coming through male supremacist groups,” said Keegan Hankes, a senior research analyst at the SPLC. “Incel forums tend to have more violent rhetoric than I’m used to seeing on even white supremacist sites.”

Hankes warned that these messages boards can “play a very large role” in the radicalization of incels. “For [new members] who weren’t articulating violent sentiment before, they’re getting exposed to a very heavy dosage of it,” he said.

Incels.me
An incel explains why he thinks it’s justifiable for a man to beat his wife.

In April, a man rammed a van into a crowd of pedestrians in downtown Toronto, killing eight women and two men. Shortly before the attack, the suspect, 25-year-old Alek Minassian, posted a message online that celebrated Rodger and the “Incel Rebellion.”

Soon, he too was lauded as a source of inspiration by incels online. “Perhaps we can get a new hero inspired by Alek Minassian, no?” wrote a member of Incels.me, which is one of the largest and most extreme incel groups. Others suggested he didn’t go far enough: “I hope the next [assailant] throws in a rape or two ... I’m tired of the same ol death count. How bout a rape count or an acid-in-her-fucking-face count?”

Just as ISIS members and sympathizers often eagerly claim responsibility for attacks the terrorist group may not have committed as a way to promote their ideology, incels are generally quick to celebrate mass murders as incel killing sprees even before the perpetrators have been identified. And just as researchers have identified “the innate need for camaraderie” as a key reason why young men join jihadist groups, incels’ desperation for a sense of belonging can drive them into radical misogynist networks.

These are only two of many similarities between incels and jihadi sympathizers, said one longtime incel observer who spoke on condition that he’d be known by his alias “Reformed Incel.” A self-described celibate man in his late 30s, he first joined incel forums as a teenager but later distanced himself from the community as it grew and became more toxic.

“I’d say the trend of the ‘average incel’ is getting more extreme,” said Reformed Incel. “The more moderate voices, the ones who reject the rising extremism and the ones who become successful [in pursuing romantic or sexual relationships] will eventually leave … What’s left are the more extreme voices and the ones who tolerate the hate.”

‘People Need To Pay’

The nearly 6,900 members of Incels.me have exchanged well over a million messages since the website’s creation in November. Many are strikingly similar to those written by Rodger and other misogynists-turned-terrorists, and focus on one fantasy in particular: Vengeance.

Typical posts on the forum describe not only a desire to have sex with women but also to hurt, humiliate, control and punish them.

“I don’t see women as human. All they are, or should be, is slaves to men. Cook, clean, and spreading legs when they’re told to,” one member of Incels.me, who says he is 25 years old, wrote in April. “Let’s start beating women again.”

This man, whose username is “CopeWithTheRope,” frequently argues that violence against women is justified. He also writes about ending his life in a dramatic way to “put on a show,” because he’s convinced women reject him due to his baldness and smaller-than-average penis. Fellow incels have rallied around him and the many others who express suicidal and homicidal desires there, often encouraging them to “go ER” ― a reference to Rodger’s murderous rampage ― to seek revenge against women and their chosen sexual partners.

“There will be a lot more incels that will go ER as the situation for all man gets worse... as modern feminism pushes society to ruins,” one man, whose profile displays a picture of Rodger, wrote on Incels.me. “I can actually see it happening,” another agreed.

“I hope it does,” responded CopeWithTheRope, who declined to be interviewed. “People need to pay for how they treat us. Examples need to be made.”

Incels.me
An incel shares his everyday strategies for turning women's lives "into hell."

Radical incels also debate less extreme ways to punish women and “inflict some psychological damage” without “getting into trouble.”

They talk gleefully about molesting women on crowded buses, harassing them on social media and catfishing them on dating sites to obtain naked photos for blackmailing purposes, among other things. What emerges in a lot of these discussions is what Hankes describes as “cheerleading,” as men compliment each other’s ideas with comments such as “I salute you for taking a stand against the bitch” and “I have the utmost respect for your way of thinking.”

Monitoring Radical Misogyny Online

Most speech is, of course, protected by the First Amendment, and federal agencies such as the FBI cannot surveil or investigate someone “based solely on one’s membership of a group or their exercise of First Amendment rights,” an FBI spokesperson told HuffPost.

Private companies such as Facebook and Twitter can decide what content is allowable on their sites but have generally failed to keep toxic misogyny off their platforms, despite repeated pledges to combat extremism. In the European Union, lawmakers have taken an interventionist approach by threatening social media companies with new legislation if they fail to crack down on hate speech and extremist content.

Incels.me
An incel garners praise after describing his fantasies of detonating a bomb in a large crowd of people and murdering "sloots" (sluts).

Successful efforts to eradicate a hateful online community can often lead to the creation of one or several new hate groups, resembling a game of whack-a-mole.

PUAHate.com, where Rodger wrote “Women are the enemy” and said he wanted to “empower all incels of the world to take action against those who would oppress us,” shut down after his killings. But new incel groups quickly popped up, and continue to appear today, including massive pages on Reddit and forums hosted on separate websites.

A Downward Spiral

Incel forums started out as supportive places for lonely people ― men and women ― to talk about struggles with romance and dating. Discussions mostly centered on building confidence and helping each other make connections.

“These online communities didn’t used to be so violently misogynistic and as obsessed with violence as they are now,” said David Futrelle, a journalist who has studied male supremacists online for nearly a decade. He believes the problem is only getting worse, something he attributes in part to the rise of the alt-right and intermingling of hate groups online, which has “ramped up the viciousness to a whole new level.”

Today, incel forums are populated almost entirely by men, and discussions of extreme violence against women are commonplace.

As HuffPost recently uncovered, an incel who is also a white supremacist and a self-proclaimed pedophile is running for Congress. On various incel websites, including one he created, he argues that women and girls should be “rape-slaves” for men who can’t find willing sexual partners. Such sentiments, though extreme, are not uncommon on incel pages.

Women “shouldn’t have rights,” a man on Incels.me wrote in April. He would like to hit a woman’s face with a glass bottle “until it breaks, then pick up a glass shard and stab her in the vagina until it’s unrecognizable or her guts spew out,” he said. Another member, who says he is 18 years old, described his desire to choke an attractive woman to death. Yet another said he wanted to “brutalize a girl, break her legs, then sacrifice her in the forest.”

These online communities didn’t used to be so violently misogynistic and as obsessed with violence as they are now. David Futrelle, writer on male supremacy

Incel networks took a turn for the worse “as the hateful side of the Internet grew,” said the woman who coined the term for involuntary celibacy. Alana, who asked to be identified only by her first name, created the first online incel community in 1997. Known as the Involuntary Celibate Project, her group began as a mailing list for others like her who had struggled with dating. It drew in men and women from around the world, including Reformed Incel.

Back then, Alana recalled, subscribers “were giving each other some advice, and it was very positive in that way.” She said they “felt that they were getting support and they were feeling a little bit better, they had a little bit of hope.”

As Alana, Reformed Incel and Futrelle have observed, these communities that once offered encouragement and validation now portray women as evil and incels as victims.

“They essentially magnify these guys’ negative feelings and encourage them to feel hopeless,” Futrelle said. “If a guy doesn’t feel like there’s much point in living, he knows that if he goes out and does something violent, he’s going to be celebrated by all these people on these message boards … I’ve been expecting more [incel attacks] for a long time.”

A Toxic ‘Brotherhood’

Incel forums are particularly toxic for young men and teenage boys who can more easily get “sucked into” a vision of a bleak and hopeless future, said Reformed Incel.

“You could be like I was ― a teenager who doesn’t have any luck with girls,” he said. These men “resort to toxic online forums where they feel better since they are relating to people who understand their struggles.”

Incels.me
A survey conducted by incels.me shows the vast majority of its members are younger than 25.

Many on incel forums appear to be quite young. HuffPost found individuals claiming to be just 14 years old on Incels.me. The group recently surveyed its members and found that almost 10 percent say they are under 18 years old. An additional 35 percent say they are 18 to 21, according to the study, which could not be independently verified.

Like Eric, many incels say they are mainly seeking friendship in their networks, which they sometimes refer to as “brotherhoods.” New members are often embraced by other incels.

Leaving is the hard part.

“Praying that this site goes down and stays down,” Eric wrote on Lookism.net in June. He said he's tried to leave incel forums before, but he always ends up coming back.

Someday, he told me, he hopes he’ll be able to quit the incel community for good.

“They’re very toxic and not good for the mind,” he said. “But it’s a place for outcasts like me. The only place I belong.”