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Remembering Toronto: Two Years Later, Incel Terrorism Threat Lingers

Remembering Toronto: Two Years Later, Incel Terrorism Threat Lingers
6th May 2020 Jacob Ware

Two years after Alek Minassian’s homicidal vehicular rampage through Toronto, the deadliest incel terrorist attack to date, the violent fringes of this community remain poorly understood. With an evolving extremist ideology and growing links to violent, far-right extremism, incels pose a continuing terrorism threat to the American public as well as communities in Canada and Europe. Our recent analysis in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, titled, “Assessing the Threat of Incel Violence,” presents an updated and more comprehensive assessment of the movement, its potential future violence, and the responses and interventions required to address an ignored and often dismissed phenomenon.

More violently-inclined incels remained emboldened, and there is ample reason to believe that the terrorist threat they pose has not receded. This is reflected in recent law enforcement warnings about the community. In September 2019, the U.S. Army, for instance, warned about potential violence at screenings of the Joker movie, after picking up “disturbing and very specific chatter” on incel chats on the dark web. And a January 2020 Texas Department of Public Safety domestic terrorism threat assessment talked at length about incels, warning that “the violence demonstrated by Incels in the past decade, coupled with extremely violent online rhetoric, suggests this particular threat could soon match, or potentially eclipse, the level of lethalness demonstrated by other domestic terrorism types.”

Counterterrorism efforts are complicated in part because, like extremist far-right and Islamist communities, incels are increasingly turning to the dark web to congregate, debate, and radicalise new followers. Incels are clearly aware of—and moreover often bask in—the attention they receive from mainstream media and law enforcement. This has led to both top-down and individual self-censorship in order to avoid incel forums being shut down, as happened to Reddit’s popular r/incels in November 2017. This censorship has caused more violent incels to migrate to more discrete forums such as abstruse gamer chatrooms and the dark web. In a parallel to the violent, extreme right, this includes sites like Gab, an openly far-right social media site.

There are, however, also counterterrorism opportunities yet to be grasped. The incel community is hardly monolithic or unified, leaving myriad opportunities for intervention. Because the community displays high levels of variability, it lacks the cohesiveness prevalent in other violent radical movements. In other words, while incels agree on a description of the problem—biological determinism and a society in which females wield too much power—they disagree on the prescription. For instance, some see violence as essential to achieving an incel end goal, whether that be policies to ensure sex for all men or an end to feminism; some simply see it “as a gratuitous, liberating act of revenge without any hope of gaining something.” Given that there are, at a minimum, many thousands active on incel forums coupled with the inherently fractious nature of these platforms, it is unsurprising that the community disagrees about self-definition and teleological issues.

In addition, incels pride themselves on their so-called “shitposting,” which makes it challenging to ascertain—and easy to overestimate—the dimensions of the actual threat. The online community, of which incels are a subset, has a culture layered in sarcasm and satire; this veil is challenging for a dilettante to penetrate, and makes it difficult to parse incel ideology and assess actual radicalisation as a prelude to violence. A premium is put on saying outrageous, edgy things since these posts get the most attention and provoke the most discussion. Moreover, many incels say these forums are their only space to vent and share their darkest thoughts, because they have no other outlet to be heard. This often makes it difficult to tell which posts may constitute a threat, and which are just cathartic satire or false bravado—and therefore not an actionable indication of imminent violence.

More importantly, increasing momentum for social media sites to take more responsibility for radical material online may significantly degrade the more extreme currents within the incel movement. Although specific incel forums themselves are relatively well self-policed, posts on more eclectic sites, including 4chan and 8kun, continue to call for violence against women and minorities as well as provide a location where extremist manifestos can be posted in advance of violent acts. Recent international efforts to counter online extremism include the April 2019 UK government’s “Online Harms” White Paper, meant to more effectively tackle threatening online content. “If we surrender our online spaces to those who spread hate, abuse, fear and vitriolic content, then we will all lose,” it argued, before presenting “ambitious plans for a new system of accountability and oversight for tech companies, moving far beyond self-regulation.” And in June 2019, in the wake of a devastating far-right attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern instigated the Christchurch Call, an international political summit to address online extremism and the role of social media companies in its propagation. In the U.S., stringent free speech laws make passing legislation to tackle online extremism more difficult, but alternative measures to undermine the free reign of extremist movements over online spaces have been suggested by journalists, scholars, CVE practitioners, and politicians alike. For now, a broader conversation is needed on how to push back against extremism and violent ideologies online, involving tech companies, terrorism and radicalisation experts, governments, and young social media users and even former extremists.

The enduring vibrancy of the incel movement suggests that the role that sexual frustration and male “aggrieved entitlement” plays in fuelling radicalisation continues unabated. Notably, too, such a radicalisation factor may be playing a role in fuelling other extremist movements—the synagogue shooter in Halle, Germany, had for instance used similar grievances to explain his radicalisation. We urgently need more research on this deeply personal but profoundly powerful dynamic, and to find ways to push back against its unchecked pervasiveness online.