In the wake of the Plymouth shootings in August 2021, experts from the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) have told Refinery29 that the misogynist incel (short for involuntary celibate) movement is spreading and has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
This lack of information matters because there has rightly been a renewed focus on the threat posed by incels since 12th August 2021, when a 22-year-old man named Jake Davison killed his 51-year-old mother, Maxine Davison, at a property in Plymouth. He then left the house with a gun and went on a shooting spree which resulted in a total death toll of five. Two other people were injured before Davison turned the gun on himself.
In the weeks prior to his killing spree, Davison referenced toxic, misogynistic internet ideologies which fall under the 'blackpill' movement. This runs adjacent to the 'red pill' movement, which takes its name from a scene in the 1999 film The Matrix where Keanu Reeves' character, Neo, is offered a choice: "You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes."
That 'rabbit hole', according to incels, is the reality that women are in charge of everything but take no responsibility for it and that men – their victims – are discriminated against and never allowed to speak out about it. This view is perpetuated on various websites and YouTube channels which make up an online network known as the manosphere. Blackpill, which you’ll also find there, is defined by academics in a new study published in the journal Men and Masculinities as the fatalistic and nihilistic notion that "it’s over" because "inferior" men have no chance of ever establishing sexual relationships with women.
The pandemic has left many young men lonelier and more sexually deprived than ever. Forums can quickly become replacements for family and friends; this is reflected in the often deeply personal conversations between incels online.
Part of the problem with the absence of data could be that inceldom falls under a category known as 'mixed, unclear and unstable' (MUU) threats. We do know that in the year 2019/2020, the number of referrals to Prevent of individuals who fall into this category increased.
Julia Ebner, author of Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists and senior research fellow at ISD, told Refinery29 that the pandemic’s stay-at-home orders have exacerbated and fuelled the threat posed by incels.
"My observations suggest that the incels movement has expanded its network beyond its existing audiences since the outbreak of COVID," she explains. "The pandemic has left many young men lonelier and more sexually deprived than ever. The tough socioeconomic conditions and psychological effects of the pandemic are not helping either. Many people have lost their jobs, have increased the time they spend online and have lost social contacts to real-life friends in the course of the lockdowns. Forums can then quickly become replacements for family and friends; this is reflected in the often deeply personal conversations between incels online."
Davison subscribed to YouTube channel Incel TV and had uploaded videos of himself to YouTube in the weeks before the shooting describing how he was "consuming the black pill overdose". He also uploaded videos of himself weightlifting and recorded himself explaining his frustration about being a virgin. He regularly posted about his admiration for guns, particularly models that are legal to own in the US but not the UK, and spoke of his desire to move to the US or Canada.
You might reasonably argue that Davison had been radicalised by extremist material online. The extremist ideology of incels is not uniform. It takes different forms – red pill, blackpill and a loose movement which might be described as 'men’s rights' – but it is being incubated online in a network of forums and websites broadly known as the 'manosphere' where various misogynistic and sometimes xenophobic (because so-called men’s rights increasingly overlaps with the far right) ideas are shared. It can be summed up broadly as male supremacy: the belief, held mostly by men, that female sexual liberation has caused men to be serially deprived of sex despite their perceived worthiness to access it.
In spite of this, the Plymouth attack was not classed as a terror attack. Davison was a licensed firearms holder who used a legally held shotgun to carry out these killings.
When asked why this was the case, a government spokesperson told Refinery29: "The government is committed to tackling those who promote extremist ideology, violence and hatred in our society, and who radicalise others into terrorism." However, the Home Office does accept that the Prevent programme, which is intended to "safeguard those at risk of radicalisation" can include individuals associating themselves with incel narratives. The Home Office has also made the assessment that an incel-motivated attack could fall within the scope of a UK terrorism definition, subject to the facts of the case.
Ebner adds that this threat needs to be taken seriously. "The recent Plymouth incel attack and the murder of Sarah Everard have highlighted the danger that hatred towards women poses," she says. "We urgently need to make violent misogyny a hate crime so it was with great concern that I watched the prime minister’s refusal to take this step."
By making misogyny a hate crime, Ebner continues, Britain would acknowledge that "misogyny is a central part of hateful extremism that is not covered in current measures to protect women from domestic violence and sexual abuse."
In the case of some incel sites, monthly traffic can be in the hundreds of thousands or even millions.
In 2020, Canada added misogynist and male supremacist ideologies to its national terrorism legislation. The big tech platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have started to take down incel content but many of the incel forums and websites can still be found on the surface web, which means that they remain accessible to everyone. "You find calls to violence against women, glorifying memes of previous incel attackers and suicide manuals with one mouse click," Ebner laments.
She’s not the only expert to voice concern. Callum Hood is head of research at CCDH. He told Refinery29: "Online spaces dedicated to incel subcultures, violent misogyny and toxic men's rights activism are far more popular than people might realise – in the case of some sites, monthly traffic can be in the hundreds of thousands or even millions."
"That's a significant number of people, mostly young men, accessing some incredibly disturbing, radicalising content which often tries to justify real-world violence," he added.
"Although it's difficult to draw many conclusions about causation, we've definitely seen an uptick in interest to these sites during the pandemic. That could be down to a range of social factors, or even changes in the online infrastructure that supports these movements. Either way, it's a deeply concerning trend."
Criminalising people is complex. As we know from the simple fact that crime still exists when it is illegal, it’s also not necessarily a solution. However, Hood added that if we were to definitively label incel violence as terror and extremism, it would "engage extra resources across government agencies to actually be able to address the problem in a more serious way".
CCDH says it is monitoring several websites (which will not be named to avoid driving traffic to them) which have, in the last few months alone, seen vertiginous growth in their user bases.
We may yet look back on Davison’s attack and conclude that the decision not to categorise it as a terror incident was an oversight. Under the Terrorism Act 2000, by definition, terrorism is the threat or use of action to intimidate the public in advancement of a political, religious, racial or ideological cause.
There is a certain legal ambiguity as to how the Act can accommodate incels because their worldview and aims are not as united as some other forms of extremism. In his latest legislative review, the UK’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, Jonathan Hall QC, argued that incel violence could constitute terrorism under the current definition if there were evidence of an individual seeking to initiate a "revolution of the unhappy" through their violent actions. However he added that in some cases, while incel tropes may be present, they may be a thin ideological veil for acts of violence with fundamentally personal drivers. This may explain why Davison’s shootings were not categorised as terrorism.
According to both Ebner and Hood, the dissemination of extremist ideas is exactly what is occurring in the manosphere. So the question may be less whether incels are terrorists or not and more whether British counter-terror approaches are able to capture the threat they pose. Perhaps it’s time we renew our terrorism legislation in order to tackle what is clearly a growing and variegated problem.