In recent years, there have been increasing instances of online hate and gender-based violence against women. Reports of involuntary celibate (incel)-inspired violence are prevalent and have become dominant in popular discourse. Incels view a lack of romantic and sexual gratification by women as a form of oppression against men. Incels rally around shared negative sentiments on celibacy, which are tied to misogynistic worldviews and lead to the encouragement of violence against women. Incel ideologies are connected to forms of masculine domination, and tropes of white supremacy and hierarchy.
In Canada, public attention towards incels grew when Alek Minassian, a self-declared incel, drove a van through downtown Toronto targeting women to hit and kill, ultimately murdering 10 individuals. While there has been increasing scholarly and public interest in the incel community, much of the discourse has been focused on the worldview of violent actors and the sensationalisation of harm. However, the interconnected nature of the online and offline dimensions of incel-related violence are often not highlighted in discourse.
In my article in Violence Against Women, titled Technology-Facilitated Gender-Based Violence, Hate Speech, and Terrorism: A Risk Assessment of the Incel Rebellion in Canada, I question how Canadian violent extremist risk assessment tools capture the gendered forms of online and offline violence in the incel community. I conduct a semantic analysis of a prominent incel web forum and the police interview transcript of Alek Minassian conducted after the van attack. In doing so, I capture and connect both the offline and online dynamics of incel-related behaviours and motivations. I compare my analysis to current risk assessment frameworks used in Canada to evaluate the threat of extremism posed by incels. As a result, I highlight the interconnected online and offline nature of incel-motivated violence and the need to centre gendered motivations within Canadian risk assessment frameworks that evaluate extremism.
Previous literature has highlighted the importance of technology on gendered forms of violence. In particular, scholars such as Henry and Powell define technology-facilitated sexual violence, which demonstrates how technology can be used to embolden sexual violence in both online and offline realms. This focus on facilitation brings to light the crucial role of technology and online platforms as tools that can manipulate, privatise, and galvanise gendered violence that can manifest in both online and offline forms.
Canada’s Strategy to Prevent and Address Gender-Based Violence and the United Nations’ 2015 Cyber Violence Against Women and Girls Report were created to focus on the impact of the online sphere as a tool and environment which can be manipulated to increase the rate of gendered violence. These strategic documents seldom address the organised nature of gendered violence that is increasingly perpetuated by ideologically radical and misogynistic groups, such as the incel community. Gender-based violence within mainstream governmental and institutional discourse has historically focused on traditional conceptualisations of interpersonal and domestic gendered disputes. However, there has been increasing interest in both policy and academic fields to expand research on the prevalence of far-right, white supremacist, and violent misogynistic groups, ranging from the Proud Boys to incels, to establish connections between organised violent radicalisation in connection to gendered harms. For example, Public Safety Canada established a community resilience fund starting in 2018 to 2019 which supported various organisations in conducting research on violent radicalisation, with specific initiatives exploring gendered violence caused by the incel community.
This research employs a critical discourse and semantic analysis approach using qualitative text analysis. I assessed both the language in the police interview transcript of Alek Minassian and on an incel forum within a one-month timeframe after the Minassian attack to better understand the connections between online communities and offline instances of violence and evaluate community reactions to Minassian’s actions. While Minassian’s attack had already occurred at the point of the police interview, an analysis of his behaviour provides a direct example which supports ongoing research on the connections of gendered violence from online to offline domains. An analysis of the incel forum provides further context on the impact and larger reception of gendered violence. In doing so, I developed a lexicon to identify underlying connotations within the terminology specific to the incel community. Through text analysis, I compared the language used by incels on the forum and in Minassian’s police interview transcript with risk factors in two violent extremism frameworks used in Canada – the Violent Extremism Risk Assessment (VERA-2) and the Cyber Extremism Risk Assessment (CYBERA). These two frameworks are used by law enforcement officers across Europe and Asia-Pacific, including in Canada, to evaluate the threat of violent extremism risk posed by an individual. It uses a structured professional judgement method where security experts follow a guideline of established risk factors that evaluate belief, intent, and capacity towards violent extremism to inform their analysis of risk.
Findings: Connecting Online and Offline Forms of Harm within Risk Assessment Frameworks
In evaluating the language used on a forum and in the police interview transcript, there were moderate to high levels of risk towards violent extremism. Forum users and Minassian both demonstrate structural indicators that signal tendencies towards violence in both online and offline environments. In the analysis of these findings, I identify that existing extremist frameworks do not fully capture the gendered dynamics of extremism that are evident in the case of the incel community, nor do they place enough emphasis on the connection between online networks and acts of physical violence.
Cases of incel-related violence have commonly been understood as isolated and separate from those related to organised violent extremism; they are known to be ‘lone-wolf actors’. However, this research has demonstrated that it is the structural nature of online communities and the associated forms of social support that embolden incel actors. Online forums provide crucial support, motivation and ideas to incel actors to inspire acts of violence. The solidification of in-group identity is also central to incel-motivated violence; isolated and societally-deviant individuals foster a strong sense of collectivity and community loyalty. This is exemplified in how Minassian states in his police interview that members of the online incel community provided Elliot Rodger, another prominent incel actor, with “encouraging support so that he would have the courage to ah [sic] start his rebellion”. The glorification of violence within this community further demonstrates the imperative role of online forums in perpetuating physical gender-based violence. Through analysis of the forum, there were 113 mentions of Alek Minassian glorifying his violent actions, citing “Alek Minassian was doing God’s work”, and “all hail Alek Minassian”. Physical acts of violence by incel actors such as Minassian are thus not individualised and isolated instances of harm but enabled and encouraged by online support networks. Online connections are crucial to understanding offline instances of incel-inspired violence.
Conceptualisation of Risk Assessment Frameworks
In evaluating the frameworks that are used to assess extremism and violence in Canada, I highlight two main aspects to consider – the framing of extremism in relation to gender, and the connection between online and offline evaluations. First, extremism risk assessment frameworks often hold traditional conceptions of extremism that are based on rather than gender. For example, in CYBERA, a category of assessment includes Adherence to Conspiracy Theories about the Affiliated Ethnic/Religious Groups. Formalised categorisations that are predisposed to evaluate certain demographic characteristics can thus influence the threshold of perceived threats and resultantly overlook gender-based violence which lacks a racial or religious element.
The pertinence of gendered hegemonic language used within incel forums may thus be neglected because of these structures. Incel communities often employ in-group language or slang terms used for misogynistic and violent characterisations and behaviours; however, these terms are not common to everyday parlance. For example, within the incel forum, words such as roastie or femoid are commonly used to reduce women to non-human and sexual objects that can be dominated. The use of these terms allows the online incel community to adapt their language to conceal their violent intentions from existing institutional structures of extremism assessment while also affirming a sense of in-group identity formed around shared language. Thus, gender-based indicators of violence that consider the language used within misogynistic online communities that instigate harm must be intentionally incorporated into extremism assessment frameworks so as to not dismiss gendered forms of risk towards violence.
Second, the separation of risk tools into the assessment of either online or offline forms of extremism further dichotomises and minimises the connection between the online and offline realities of gendered violence. Through this research, I assess that VERA-2 and CYBERA produce different prescriptions on the degrees of risk when evaluating the same scenarios of the incel forum and the Alek Minassian case. These differences can thus create discrepancies in the evaluation of incel-motivated violence when assessing specific scenarios of risk. While VERA-2 and CYBERA may be intended to be complementary tools, this categorical separation further prevents a unified analysis of extremism that acknowledges how acts of violence are crucially enabled by online-offline connectivity. Thus, the creation of risk assessment tools that intrinsically connect online and offline realities can provide a more comprehensive assessment of incel-inspired and gender-based violence.
Implications for a Post-Covid Era
Beyond this research, the connection of online communities, including incels, to offline gender-based violence is ever more important. Recent research has indicated that the COVID-19 pandemic has instigated the rise of violent extremism and participation in incel communities. With deteriorating mental health conditions, economic instability, and increasing isolation amongst the general population, but in particular amongst youth, many individuals have taken to the internet to find solace. Individuals can hence project and share personal grievances through incel forums and other like-minded communities. What’s more, far-right groups, including misogynistic and white supremacist communities, have taken advantage of the pandemic to recruit aggrieved individuals. Online platforms have become a tool weaponised to further gendered violence in both online and offline domains, as demonstrated in this research; as individuals seek refuge on online platforms and face increasingly difficult circumstances during the pandemic, increasing instances of hate speech and gendered abuse will surface.
As nations transition to a post-pandemic period, researchers have forecasted increasing levels of incel-motivated violence. In Canada, combatting incel-inspired violence in the post-COVID era is imperative, as there have been higher rates of violence clearly associated with the incel community in comparison to other countries. The Canadian incel community has glorified Canadian incel actors such as Minassian. Further Canadian incel-related forms of violence could thus inspire and iterate increasing rates of organised gender-based violence. As Canada and other nations seek to adapt to a post-COVID era, it is imperative to incorporate misogynistic violence within governmental policy and operational framework and definitions of extremism, sustained through the transformation of gender-based risk assessment tools.
While Canadian policy and security experts may remain divided on the gravity of the incel threat, research has also indicated that there is increased resentment towards society within incel communities due to their recent governmental designation and subsequent association with terrorism, and because of isolation experienced during the pandemic. Thus, post-COVID strategies must also seek to evaluate the evolving motives and behaviours of the incel community to understand the full breadth of the threat posed by these communities. In adopting a harm-prevention model, post-COVID initiatives must incorporate online and offline support systems based on deradicalisation, education in online safety, and mental health support programs to counter and prevent further instances of gender-based violence. As the extremist landscape continues to change in Canada, attention must be paid to the online and offline connections and realities of gender-based violence.
Esli Chan is a PhD Political Science student at McGill University. Her research interests focus on the intersection of emerging technologies, online extremist and far-right movements, and gender issues. Her recent publications in Violence Against Women and Harvard Women’s Policy Journal analyze the connections between gender-based violence and international cybersecurity standards. Esli holds a Masters in Risk Analysis from King’s College London, and a Bachelors in Political Science from McGill University. Esli also has professional work experience in international relations, political risk analysis, and partnership management.