Certain usernames and names of forums have been removed to avoid amplifying their voices and platforms.
In August 2021, Jake Davison killed five and injured two people in Plymouth, England in a shooting spree. Davison was allegedly an ‘incel’ (short for involuntary celibate); an online community of misogynists who adhere to male supremacist and in-group-specific beliefs which justify their women-hating worldview. Before his attack, Davison was active in numerous incel-aligned fora, repeated misogynistic talking points, and expressed extreme negativity towards his life and romantic pursuits. In the aftermath of the attack, many experts and media outlets denounced Davison’s actions, linking them to his incel worldview. This incel worldview has often been connected to real-world violence since the 2014 Isla Vista massacre by “incel hero” and “supreme gentleman” Elliot Rodger. Some social commentators, however, defended the online community by denying Davison was part of the group and portraying him as “just a really lonely person”.
This ‘lonely person’ rhetoric is indicative of an emerging counter-narrative which, unwittingly or otherwise, serves to distance incels and their worldview from violence; hides the misogynistic motivations for their actions; and portrays incels as harmless and misunderstood. In mainstreaming this message, incels are aided by various actors from the public and academic spheres alike. This connection, however, is often hidden and not well-understood. Thus, this Insight aims to explore the role media and academia play in inadvertently platforming and proliferating incel rhetoric. I do so by tracing the origin of this phenomenon, the various attempts by incels to rebrand themselves, and their successes using media and academia to do this. Important attention is given throughout on the impacts and implications of this phenomenon.
Correcting the Narrative
In 2021, radicalisation scholar Megan Kelly published an article titled ‘The Mainstream Pill’, which describes recent efforts by incels to publicly rebrand themselves and their successes in this endeavour. Kelly traces an online essay published in February 2019 – less than a year after incel Alek Minassian’s infamous van attack – by the administrator of a prominent incel forum. This essay, in its own words, was meant to “[lay] down a realistic portrayal of incels, leaving aside the often sensationalist overtones of the media [and] misunderstood definitions of the public.” In doing so, Kelly argues, the admin laid the groundwork for a recent wave of attempts to “rebrand the misogynist incel movement and present a more palatable version.” This version of the incel is a supposedly non-violent, non-misogynistic lonely and misunderstood guy whose violent rhetoric is nothing more than ironic “locker room talk.” This narrative has its origin in common incel tropes, such as feeling misunderstood by media and society, and their self-perception of innocence. What was new, however, was the way this rhetoric was picked up and elevated to a more mainstream audience by various actors. Driven primarily by the publisher of the aforementioned essay – ‘SergeantIncel’ – various institutions have amplified his message, taken up the mantle of this effort, or (inadvertently) platformed its content.
Rebranding: The New Narrative
As Kelly points out, the new incel narrative consists of tropes and theories that have floated around inceldom for a while but had never successfully infiltrated the mainstream audience before. To achieve this, and with SergeantIncel as the catalyst, another influential administrator became involved in the project. Within weeks of SergeantIncel’s post, this admin started to publicly rebuke perceived misrepresentations of incels and engage inquisitive journalists on his forum. On a thread reacting to a Vox article on incels, this admin explains he is “hostile” but willing to reproach journalists “because they have mischaracterised many things.” Continuing, he blames media outlets for ignoring “the issues that men have been facing,” and for pushing their “feminist ideology”: “This is why many people join our community… we all understand that we’re f**ked in the dating world and it’s women and society’s fault.” In another post, the admin publicly answers questions sent to him by a columnist. In a manner less subtle than SergeantIncel, he responds to a question about incel violence by stating that “feminists have now created the society that they deserve.” This highlights the duplicitous nature of the new narrative: incels are supposedly innocent victims, but simultaneously advocate for violence and misogyny.
An ongoing tactic used by incels and their supporters is the recasting of hateful rhetoric as an issue of free speech, which conveniently absolves incels from all responsibility for their death threats and rape jokes. Continuing answering the columnist’s questions, the admin responds to a question about users on his forum worshipping Elliot Rodger by saying: “I feel that people have the right to praise whoever they like… This is what free speech is all about,” portraying his forum as a safe haven of free speech. In his essay ‘Introduction to Incels,’ this admin says his “forum strives to maintain a peaceful place for incels to speak as freely as US Free Speech Laws allow.” Despite this, many incels express homicidal thoughts on his forum, worship misogynistic mass killers, and regularly advocate for violence against women.
These PR efforts showcase attempts to craft an incel-led self-story and ‘correct’ the mainstream public narrative. ‘Introduction to Incels’ is a locked post on the homepage of the forum, and, similar to SergeantIncel’s essay, presents a holistic narrative of incels which excludes notions of violence, misogyny, or hate. Instead, these admins crafted an image of innocence, public misunderstanding, and victimisation by the media. Thus, a new incel narrative was constructed. The aim was now on projecting it to the public.
The Role of Media: Platforming
The new incel message is most clearly amplified on social media, where uninformed and naive content creators produce videos hosting incels, but in turn, inadvertently platform their ideas. While researchers have found more than thirty incel-related YouTube channels, the vast majority of them have very limited audiences. Mainstream channels, however, serve to close this gap. Within the first minutes of the most viewed video on incels titled “I’m an Incel. Ask me Anything,” self-identified incel Derrick is asked by passers-by “why [he] would ever sign up to do this.” Derrick answers he aims to shine a more “positive light on his community” which is normally so negatively viewed, broadcasting an image of a non-violent and misunderstood incel community. While some of his questioners try their best, no concerted efforts are made to contest Derrick’s views on women and society, even when he subtly veers into common incel tropes of female promiscuity and incel victimhood. In fact, while passers-by were allowed to ask questions, rarely did they receive the opportunity to respond to Derrick.
In the second most viewed video on incels, VICE Media interviews self-proclaimed incel Joey, moderator of “an incel chatroom tied to 4chan.” In contrast to the previous video, VICE preface their interview by introducing the incel community and its history of violence. However, Joey is allowed to uncontestedly espouse common incel theories on the evils of women, the victimisation of incels, and the wider ‘war against men’ supposedly playing out within society. Combined, both videos reached an audience of 10 million.
The Infiltration of Academia
Incel rebranding has also found its way into academia. As already exposed by Kelly, SergeantIncel, under the alias Alexander Ash, has co-written four reports by the Washington-based think tank the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). While this poses grave concerns for academic integrity, neither the authors nor the institution make efforts to define what role Ash had in the writing of studies that are suspiciously positive about incels. Moreover, in November 2020, the Centre for Digital Youth Care produced a report containing Ash’s name, this time as an “expert.” In their interview with him, the authors describe his forum as a “rhetorically aggressive, towards both men and women, site.” This conflates the deep-rooted misogyny on the forum with occasional hatred towards attractive men, helping to minimise its toxicity and hiding the fact that women are still their primary victims.
When asked what role his forum plays for its users, Ash answers “I know for a fact it helps many.” While there might be some truth to this claim, it is equally true that users of his forum have committed misogynistic attacks and even a foiled mass shooting plot in the name of the ‘Incel Rebellion’. When asked if he thinks “academia today understands the incel culture,” Ash answers “no… Hopefully, I can help change that someday.” He is certainly not wrong in this, and yet this is not the end of the admin’s scope.
In June 2021, the Journal of Strategic Security released an article written by the same authors of the previous ICSVE reports, including Ash once more. What is most egregious here, however, is not just his inclusion as a co-author, but the negligence in conveying this important information to the reader. While the article provides valuable insights into incels, presenting one of the largest survey-data studies available on the subject, the only way the researchers were able to access this data was through Ash’s position as administrator of the surveyed incel forum. Ash’s editorial powers are unknown, but the study does present a rather unique view of incels, as it “aims to carefully avoid conflating all incels with those few who have engaged in sexual violence and furthermore to identify areas of need for incels who… may be appropriate for non-judgmental and understanding mental health support.” Here, the researchers not only neglect to mention the wider pool of incels who have committed misogynistic violence by focusing only on sexual violence, they also advocate for “non-judgmental” treatment, reifying incel notions of victimhood within society.
Another crucial actor Kelly identifies is investigative journalist Naama Kates. Kates runs a popular podcast called ‘The Incel Project’ which gives incels “a chance to tell their own story in their own words.” Kates and Ash’s acquaintance is well known, as Kates has previously published an inflammatory article on Ash’s personal blog, wherein, according to Kelly, she justifies “incels’ dehumanising rhetoric” and defends the Blackpill ideology. Despite this unsavoury link, Kates is a sought-after guest speaker on popular podcasts such as that by Phil Gurski, who calls her “the world’s premiere authority on incels.” Kates’ narrative closely mirrors that of Ash, often repeating his same claims of incel-innocence and victimhood. Shrouding herself as a “free-speech person,” Kates is unapologetic in her support for “misunderstood” incels. Starting in 2022, Kates has also co-authored two scientific journal articles which dismiss the perceived correlation between incel ideological conviction and radicalisation.
It is clear, then, that Kates is sympathetic towards incels, and is able to broadcast their narratives to both mainstream and academic audiences. In a recent interview, Kates was asked about the “ethical quandaries” related to her “giving some otherwise unknown kid a megaphone to say what he wants.” Kates responds, “I might very gently pry but I don’t really want to catch them in a lie… I think what can be learned from their continued participation outweighs [it]… [I] have no obligation to screw over my sources.” The risks associated with platforming incel rhetoric cannot be overstated. As others have argued, the “insidious creep” of violent or misogynistic rhetoric can have a devastating impact no matter the alleged intention of the originator — especially when presented unequivocally. As Kelly reminds us, platforming broadcasts incels’ misogynistic and violent narratives, and obfuscates “that narrative’s foundation in male sexual entitlement and misogyny.” As has been showcased in the Strategic Security article, it also runs the risk of erasing the misogynistic violence and harassment women suffer because of incels.
This Insight aimed to map the recent observable efforts by incels to rebrand their public image, and their successes in this endeavour. Tracing the trajectory from burgeoning idea to implemented plan, this Insight has showcased the way this new narrative has been constructed, platformed, amplified, and eventually even taken up by academics. This Insight shows how media and academia, knowingly or unknowingly, serve as active participants in incel rebranding efforts, reifying incels’ grievances and insidious worldviews. In trying to distance themselves from the ‘lies and slander’ of the public, prominent incel forum admins and a plethora of related actors have shaped an identity for incels which symbolises innocence, victimhood, rationalism, and non-violence. Drawn to the allure of trying to understand this enigmatic community, scholars and media have fallen prey to the honeyed words of some incels and their supporters, subtly propagating their beliefs, hiding their male supremacist beliefs, and downplaying their potential for violence.
Rutger Sjoerts is a graduate student at Leiden University studying MSc Crisis & Security Management. He has written a bachelor thesis on the representation and interpretation of incels in academia, and is interested in social manifestations of male supremacy and the far-right, particularly on the internet.