On Social Media’s Fringes, Growing Extremism Targets Women
Posted May 9, 2018 12:52 p.m. EDT
The recent mass killing in Toronto by a suspect who once called for an “Incel Rebellion” has drawn attention to an online community of men who lament being “involuntarily celibate” and dream of a social order granting them access to the women of their choice.
The group may seem like a bizarre but tiny fringe, its views the expression of long-held resentments among a handful of lonely men. And it is.
But incels are the latest manifestation of a much larger movement hidden just beneath the surface of polite society across the West. They are just one part of a set of ideologies, now growing in size and influence, that speak to broader resentments among men in Western societies, experts say.
Two of modern society’s most disruptive forces — anger among many men over social changes they see as a threat, and the rise of social media upending how ideas spread and communities form — are colliding. The result is that movements like the incels are becoming at once more accessible and more extreme.
Although attacks like the one in Toronto that killed 10 people are rare, the hate being spread online is leading increasingly to threats and calls for violence. More often than not, the threats target women.
— ‘Aggrieved Entitlement’
For white men across the Western world, special rights and privileges once came as a birthright. Even those who lacked wealth or power were assured a status above women and minorities.
Though they still enjoy preferential status in virtually every realm, from the boardroom to the courthouse, social forces like the Me Too movement are challenging that status. To some, any steps toward equality, however modest, feel like a threat.
“There’s just this sense that ‘we used to be in charge, and now we’re not the only ones in charge, so we’ve been attacked,'” said Lilliana Mason, a University of Maryland social scientist who studies group identity and politics.
“If you have a sense that you’re owed, that your deserved status is being threatened, then you start to fight for it,” Mason said.
Often that takes the form of lashing out at members of whatever social group dared to challenge the established hierarchy.
“You’d think that young men would be treated nicely by society because we are the builders and protectors of civilization,” wrote a user named connorWM1996 on r/MGTOW, a Reddit message board for men trying to escape what they see as oppression by female-dominated society. “But no of course not. We are treated like idiots who aren’t good for anything.” Some of these men may go in search of more extreme ideologies that make sense of their feelings of anger and loss, and seem to provide a solution. Others merely stumble into them.
“Plenty of people feel like they don’t have status and don’t revolt about it,” Mason said. “But the people who do revolt are people who feel that they are owed status, and they’re not being given the status that traditional society should give them.”
The incel movement tells its adherents that society’s rules are engineered to unfairly deprive them of sex. That worldview lets them see themselves as both victims, made lonely by a vast conspiracy, and as superior, for their unique understanding of the truth.
— Greasing Extremism’s Rails
Extremism has always existed, but until recently its spread was limited. To begin with, there was the basic challenge to any collective action: how to find and gather like-minded people dispersed across great distances. Beyond that, there was the social stigma against any ideas perceived as outside the mainstream.
Social media has lowered both of those barriers.
Now, men looking for a way to explain — and justify — their anger need only a few clicks to encounter entire communities built up around promises to restore male power and control. In the past, those might have been relegated to a few bars or living rooms, but now they exist in darker corners of some of the most popular social networking sites.
Even though these men may never meet in person, they can still derive a powerful identity. Men who previously felt disconnected and lost may now feel a sense of belonging and importance.
“These online communities serve a very important function in that respect,” said Michael Kimmel, a sociologist who runs the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook University. “People encourage you to feel more, and deeper. And then value what you say that’s more and deeper.”
Social media has played a powerful role for genuinely marginalized communities, helping them come together and make themselves heard. The Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements, for instance, pushed their way onto the national agenda in part by using social media. But where those movements seek to dismantle systems of discrimination, the growing online communities of angry white men are fighting against change.
The alt-right, right-wing populism, men’s rights groups and a renewed white supremacist movement have capitalized on many white men’s feeling of loss in recent years. The groups vary in how they diagnose society’s ills and whom they blame, but they provide a sense of meaning and place for their followers. And as different extremist groups connect online, they draw on one another’s membership bases, tactics and worldviews, allowing membership in one group to become a gateway to other extremist ideologies as well.
Today, for example, posts on Incel.me, an incel forum, debate joining forces with the alt-right and argue that Jews are to blame for incels’ oppression. On one thread, users fantasized that if they were dictators, they would not only create harems and enslave women, but also “gas the Jews.”
By dividing the world into us-versus-them and describing vast injustice at the hands of the supposedly powerful, these groups, experts say, can prime adherents for violence.
— ‘Violence Is the Way I Get Even With Her’
Control over women has long been a way for men to show their status, Kimmel said. That has made ideologies which promise to safeguard men’s power over women particularly appealing to some.
Incels are just one especially extreme subgroup of the “manosphere,” an online nebula of ideologies that also includes men’s rights groups and so-called pickup artists. In those communities, adherents can find one of the most powerful antidotes to the feeling of being left behind by society: a sense of belonging to something powerful.
One group, r/TheRedPill, which has over a quarter million subscribers on Reddit, offers a worldview that partially overlaps with that of the incels. It promises its followers that if they follow its rules for living, many of which involve manipulating or pressuring women into sex, they will become high-status “alpha” males. (Its name refers to the movie “The Matrix,” in which swallowing a red pill lets the protagonist see his world’s false nature.)
“Whether we’re talking about the men’s rights groups or the incel movement or the red pill,” Kimmel said, “aggrieved entitlement underlies a lot of men’s anger.”
But when extremist groups portray women as the “them” to men’s “us,” that can become a way to justify violence by framing it as defensive rather than aggressive, Kimmel said. He summed up the mindset: “She’s making me feel ‘less than.’ So rape is the way I get even with her. Violence is the way I get even with her. She has the power, I’m taking it back.” On Incel.me, users laud Elliot Rodger, a self-identified incel who killed six people and wounded more than a dozen others near the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2014, for what they see as retaliation against women like those they feel rejected by.
One user wrote that he wished Rodger had claimed more victims: “If I were him, I wouldn’t have let a door stop me from performing my supreme justice on these disturbing creatures.”
Those men may just be venting anger, without any intent to engage in real-world violence. But researchers have found that people tend to evaluate ideas positively if they are expressed by a trusted group or leader. And so, over time, the online echo chamber can legitimize radical ideas, including calls for violence.
Eight of the 10 people killed in Toronto when a driver ran down pedestrians were women. The attack was rare for its death toll. Other forms of gendered violence, including rape and domestic abuse, are far more common. When women are portrayed as an oppressive enemy, it becomes easier for their attackers to try to legitimize their actions to themselves, Kimmel said.
“I will never condemn violence,” a user named universallyabhorred wrote in a post praising the recent Toronto attack. “With enough suffering, they can no longer ignore and ridicule us, they will fear us instead.”