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Understanding Incels’ Online Behaviour and Perceptions of Hateful Content

Understanding Incels’ Online Behaviour and Perceptions of Hateful Content
14th March 2023 Sarah Daly
In Insights

Introduction

Recent years have seen an increase in awareness and concern about incels, or involuntarily celibate men, particularly because of the large-scale public violence (and attempted violence) often associated with the group. As the public, law enforcement, and non-profit agencies turn their attention to incels, the content on their forums and online communities does little to assuage panic. Rather, the often racist, misogynistic, violent, homophobic, and antisemitic rhetoric confirms and exacerbates what many already believe about incels. At best, the online behaviour of incels leads many to view incels as hateful communities. At worst, incels are perceived as violent and terroristic.      

This Insight builds on extant literature by introducing a distinct methodology to incel research: speaking to incels themselves. By engaging with incels directly, we further ascertained their interpretation of the often-extreme content on incel forums and identify their attitudes, rationalisations, and explanations related to online incel behaviours.

Literature Review

As public concern grows and the broad interpretation of ‘incel’ continues to evolve, academics have taken an interest in these individuals and their online communities. An early  study by Donnelly and colleagues in 2001 existed in the temporal space between Alana’s Involuntary Celibacy Project, the earliest online iteration of an online community for sexless and lonely people, and the current iteration of incels. Donnelly et al. used internet recruitment to survey people in sexless relationships, as well as people who had never had sex or were not having sex at the time of the study. Specifically, they measured their emotional state, attitudes about missed milestones, and the function of gender roles. Since then, researchers have examined incels through psychological, criminological, and sociological lenses with many relying on incel forums to provide research data. Many studies use conversations and threads in online communities to understand incel perspectives, ideas, and behaviour (see, for example, Fowler, 2022; Glace et al., 2022; O’Malley et al., 2021), and relatively fewer studies involve direct contact and interaction with the incel population. 

While public perceptions of incels are typically informed by news coverage and social media, legal and law enforcement entities have been grappling with ways to understand and classify incels as a group. The panic that follows a violent incel-related attack typically leads to calls for special ‘domestic terrorism’ designations for incels, de-platforming demands, and/or enhanced legal action to prevent and address their online behaviour. Agencies and lawmakers have relied on academic scholarship to inform briefings and proposed legislation, and the body of knowledge—formed primarily by content analyses and this public discourse—suggests that incels and their hateful online communities pose a new and ongoing threat. 

Though there are a variety of concerning elements about incels and their online behaviour, there remains a need to analyse and interrogate the methods and meaning of such research. This is not to demean or downplay existing work, and most studies have provided important insights about the online spaces in which incels communicate with each other. If we are to take incels’ rhetoric at face value, there is certainly cause for concern. However, research has shown that online behaviour is much more nuanced, particularly with the benefits and norms of shit-posting and trolling. The literature suggests that these behaviours—designed to upset online users while also serving as an identity display and allegiances —are often associated with dominance while also creating in-groups and out-groups (i.e., those who ‘get the joke’ and those who do not).

Methodology and Findings

To apply this research and better understand online incel behaviours and attitudes about forum content, I contacted many of the same incels who had participated in my previous research and additional incels with whom I had communicated since its publication. For this study, I interviewed 14 men from North America, Europe, the Caribbean, and Australia to better understand their lived experiences and examine their perspectives. Examining the lived experience of incels was especially important to me because many of the things that these participants had shared in my previous study were contrary to standard depictions of incels. 

By asking incels about the content, specifically, that which is misogynistic, violent, racist, and otherwise vile, the conversations also allowed me to probe why incels might engage in this type of rhetoric. Even more, these conversations provided additional context and nuance to the existing literature by understanding how incel forum content is viewed by incels and the causes, rationalisations, and perceived responsibility of such behaviour. From these interviews, we found six main themes. First, participants suggested that only a small percentage of the incel community posts this type of language and that it is not specific to incels (as even non-incels participate in shit-posting and trolling). As one participant explained, “Saying horrible things…on the internet is something people like doing. Even non-incels do it, too.” 

Secondly, participants suggested that shit-posting serves to garner attention, even if negative. This speaks to the existing literature about online behaviour, and one participant confirmed this, saying, “I can go on there and say something outrageous…and get a tonne of attention.” Other participants shared that longer, more thoughtful posts require more engagement and time from users, while shorter, more controversial posts garner both positive and negative responses which, in turn, generates more attention. 

The third theme explains online behaviours and content as reflecting some broader truth or deeper emotions. While online incel users may not take everything online seriously, some told me that there may be certain factors that they find truthful, even if it is in a longer post that may be hyperbolic or exaggerated. For example, one participant used the example of Chad, a symbolic representation of masculinity, as being somewhat truthful in terms of his sexual and romantic success. However, he understands the limitations of arguments discussing Chad, saying “I think it’s fairly accurate. I believe in it to a certain point.” This suggests that he recognises some truth in the notion of Chad but can parse and disregard other depictions or discussions. Other incel participants focused on the truth of posts related to emotions, including anger, depression, and suicidality. One participant always takes posts about suicide seriously, while another suggested that depression leads to anger which then fuels online posts. 

Other incels downplayed the online vitriol by arguing that it is simply a joke and not meant to be taken seriously. One suggested that such language is no different than a video game lobby in which users engage in racially charged language, while two other participants suggested that the language is often self-deprecating or descriptive (e.g., Indian incels referring to themselves as ‘currycels’) rather than derogatory or degrading. Even more, these types of ‘jokes’ and language serve to separate those regular users who ‘get the joke’ (insiders) and observers of the forums who are appalled (outsiders). 

Additionally, some participants intimated that the most hateful content may be posted by non-incels to slander and smear incels. Some specifically named an online incel watchdog group which shares and mocks the most controversial posts from the forums, while one participant highlighted the ways in which this explanation may taint research studies that rely on content analyses. He stated, “[There’s] so much potential for poisoned data. A lot of people on Reddit are just ‘normies’ who larp [live action role play] as incels for fun, are deluded, or just trying to false flag.” 

Finally, some participants even expressed frustration about shit-posting, as they believe that this type of content harms incels more broadly. They found it to be annoying and not representative of them or their incel friend groups. One participant described this phenomenon as being detrimental or damaging to all incels: “I don’t understand why some incels like getting hate from people. It’s stupid because everyone will use that one edgelord who’s saying f**ked shit to make me and everyone else look like that.”       

Conclusions and Recommendations

We believe that these findings provide additional context and a framework for evaluating online forum posts. Again, we are not questioning or criticising existing research that relies on content analysis of forums as a methodological approach; instead, we encourage direct contact with incels to offer a nuanced understanding of incel communication. We hope that this research suggests additional elements to consider when examining the broader landscape of incel research. As the body of knowledge regarding incels grows, we hope to learn more about incel forum posts and the processes through which they help or harm individual incels. Research (and the policy and implications of such work) can and should identify the ways that technology and online experience can also be used to support incels to find a better bath, whether that be providing them with the help that they need to find their way out of inceldom or use online spaces as a more positive support network. In this way, researchers, policymakers, and legislators can regard incels not only as a threat to others through acts of public violence but, perhaps more likely, as a threat to themselves, especially given research about incels and suicide.

Finally, we hope this research will remind readers of the way that the internet and technology can also contribute to the marginalisation and online radicalisation of incels. The online conversations in incels spaces are concerning, but incels’ perceptions of harassment by individuals and online watchdog groups can serve as a reminder of the ways in which incels might internalise this behaviour and use it as evidence of their mistreatment in the world due to their lack of romantic success. If we can understand how technology influences incels, we can hopefully find ways to transform their online experiences in a meaningful, positive way. 

Sarah E. Daly, Ph.D. is a senior consultant at a private business and IT consulting firm. Before this career, she earned tenure and promotion as an academic criminologist who studies mass violence, gender, and incels. Her work has been published in journals such as Sex Roles, the Journal of Crime & Justice, and Forum: Qualitative Social Research. Dr. Daly also holds a visiting scholar position with the Department of Criminal Justice at SUNY Oswego in the United States. She is also the co-founder and co-editor of the Journal of Mass Violence Research. She holds degrees from the University of Notre Dame, the University of Pennsylvania, and Rutgers University’s Newark and Camden campuses. 

Twitter: @sarahdalycj