In August 2021, a young man attacked and killed his mother in Plymouth, UK. He then left his home, shot and killed five people and injured two others, after which he shot himself. Even though the motivations of the attacker are not clear, there was evidence to suggest that he had been interested in incel-related ideas and considered himself “a virgin, fat, ugly, whatever you want to call it”. However, he also stated that he did not consider himself an incel. Despite this, he was reported as a “warped incel killer” in UK tabloid media, with incels then being described as a “sinister incel death cult”.
Online incel (‘involuntarily celibate’) communities have received increasing academic and public interest in the contexts of extremism, misogyny, and mass violence. Incel communities consist mostly of heterosexual men who base their identity on not being able to form sexual or romantic relationships with women. Misogyny, nihilism, and a fixation on appearance are prevalent in incel discussions. Contrary to how they are often portrayed, incels are not all white but have diverse backgrounds and ethnicities. There is also a variety of different worldviews and ideals in these loose communities, which makes it difficult, and often misleading, to draw broad conclusions on what ‘all incels’ are like.
In a recently published article, together with my colleague Shane Murphy from Dublin City University, we looked at discussions concerning the Plymouth shooting on nine online incel forums. At that time, the lack of information about the attack and the attacker meant that many of the early attempts to make sense of the violence were grounded in speculation, or assumptions based on commenters’ own notions of inceldom. Instead of the attack itself, we were interested in exactly these discursive constructions of inceldom and violence in the discussions. We collected all threads that discussed the attack in the days immediately after the shooting, coded these posts thematically and subjected them to discourse analysis. This Insight draws from our findings and presents the different ways discourses of violence were constructed on these forums.
The Plymouth Attack: Discourses of Violence on Incel Forums
The Plymouth attack and the media coverage around it sparked discussion on all of the forums we observed – although the number of posts discussing the attack varied considerably depending on the size and activity of the forum.
Different incel forums have different discussion cultures when it comes to discourses of mass violence. We found that on two active forums more focused on incel ideology, violence was portrayed positively more often than negatively. These forums were also where the attack was discussed the most. On the other seven forums we looked at, violence was presented as negative more often than positive. This highlights the need to use a wider scope of data from different incel online communities in future research; using data from only one incel forum risks a skewed view of the phenomenon.
We also studied the discourses against violence in incel discussions. Many posters condemned mass violence in all situations; the fact that one victim of the shooting was a child was often mentioned as unacceptable. For others, violence was opposed for more practical reasons: it would worsen the public perception of incels even more.
“This guy wasn’t one of us […] I honestly feel sad that people here are vouching for this man as if he was a modern saint or as if he did something good. He killed five people and one of them a 3-year-old child, which no man can seriously claim is capable of real reasoning.”
“Brutal shit. Of course, incels will be blamed again. Stupid people in this thread commending this guy for this despicable deed, no wonder we’re seen as terrorists.”
In the posts condemning mass violence, we noticed a tendency that could be described as discursive distancing. Some posters denied any connection between incels and violence by blaming the attack on government forces or some other malicious actor willing to scapegoat and stigmatise incels in public. Others attempted to portray violent incels as ‘fakecels’ who, in reality, have nothing to do with ‘true’ and nonviolent inceldom. Those who did present violence as justified often shifted the blame from the attacker, and from incel communities in general, to instead portray incel perpetrators of mass violence as victims of their circumstances who have been driven to violence against their will.
“[…] this stinks of glow op [undercover government agent] and false flag to try demonise incels in the media. They are already running the idea of him being an incel on UK tv. Incels dont have the energy to shoot up parks, or schools.”
“I’m not a fan of innocent people dying but they have to accept that more and more of those attacks will keep happening the more they ignore, reject, gaslight and abuse average and below men.”
“[…] Women need to take accountability for leaving so many men sexless. It can lead to frustration and mass shootings.”
In all these arguments, even if justified or constructed differently, incel victimhood was a central theme. Incels distanced themselves from privilege and evoked discourses of victimhood in a multitude of ways, presenting themselves as powerless victims of a feminist hegemony. The violent attack and the media coverage that followed became a symbol of the perceived grievances and injustices incels face.
“Of course mainstream media, soyciety [sic], and normies are gonna hate and condemn incels. They’re [sic] already hate us when we haven’t been violent or gone ER [Elliot Rodger, ie. people who perpetrate mass violence], they’re just gonna hate us even more if someone goes ER. Stop seeking their approval or begging them by saying “not all of us are like that”. It doesn’t matter, THEY WILL ALWAYS SEE US AS EVIL. Never back down and never apologize for something you didn’t do.”
The contestations around violence provide an interesting insight into how inceldom was constructed in discussions of the Plymouth shooting. Whether mass violence is an undeniable part of incel communities or not was debated among incels at the same time it was in public discussion. I believe this question is so often disagreed upon because there is no single answer. Some incels praise and endorse mass violence, whereas some condemn it, meaning they cannot be declared as holistically violent or nonviolent. Acknowledging this diversity and heterogeneity is crucial in understanding the incel phenomenon.
Recognising the Role of Structural Misogyny
Much of the public interest in incels has focused on the risk of mass violence. A less spectacular, but maybe even more concerning form of risk the incel phenomenon presents is the normalisation and spread of misogyny and male supremacist ideology. Incels should not be viewed as an isolated misogynist community. They exist as a part of wider misogynist structures, and everyday misogyny and cultural ideas of aggression as part of masculinity feed into the incel worldview. In general, the role of misogyny and male supremacism in violent extremism should be recognised far better in policy, research and public discourse. Incels are not and should not be presented as a spectacular exception, but instead as a symptom of the misogyny that is so normalised in our societies that it often becomes invisible.
In public discussion, incels are often depicted in a simplistic, hyperbolic way. Our findings demonstrate that acknowledging the heterogeneity of incel communities is necessary for building a holistic understanding of this phenomenon. Focusing on incels as the epitome of misogyny risks ignoring the fact that misogyny is a much broader, structural issue on a societal and global level.
The online harassment and silencing of women and minorities is a human rights issue. Fear of hate speech and threats limits women’s participation in politics, research, and public-facing roles more broadly, presenting a major issue for the tech companies providing the platform for this conduct. The responsibility for managing the problem cannot, and should not, be shifted solely onto individuals. Instead, platform providers need to step up in terms of both policy and enforcement.
Emilia Lounela is a doctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki. Her dissertation examines incel experiences, ideals and worldviews through both online discussion and interview data.