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Policing the incels
Sensemaker audio

Policing the incels

Policing the incels

Jake Davison, an ‘incel’ who was radicalised online, killed five people with a licensed gun. Should social media checks be a part of gun ownership?


Transcript

andrew, narrating:

Hi, I’m Andrew – and this is Sensemaker – from tortoisemedia.com

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today, could police checks on social media help stop mass shootings? 

*** 

Just days ago the UK saw it’s deadliest mass shooting in a decade. 

A gunman killed his mother and four other victims, including a three-year-old girl in Plymouth, with a shotgun. It was an act of violence that sent shockwaves through the local community, and the rest of the country. 

“This is an awful tragedy, probably the darkest day since the end of the second world war in terms of numbers of casualties all at the same time. It really is horrendous

Luke Pollard, Labour MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport

The perpetrator was a 22-year-old man called Jake Davison. 

After his rampage, he shot himself. 

And as soon as police started to investigate what had happened, the focus turned to Jake Davison’s social media, and his use of internet forums. 

So could these have provided clues of what was to come? 

***

Various YouTube videos and forum posts have since come to light which indicate Jake Davison was part of the online ‘incel’ movement. 

If that term isn’t familiar to you, it stands for ‘involuntary celibate’, and it describes young men who consider themselves unable to attract women sexually… men who are often hostile towards women.

And this isn’t the first time that someone involved in the incel community has been the perpetrator of mass murder.  

“That deadly rampage tonight with police calling it premeditated mass murder.”

ABC News, 2014

In 2014, Elliot Rodgers – also 22 years old – shot dead six people and injured 14 others near Santa Barbara, California. 

Before the attack, he posted videos stating that he had planned the murders as a “Day of Retribution” and said he had “no choice but to exact revenge on the society” that had “denied” him sex and love.

This is Rodgers’ father, speaking shortly after the shooting.

“Did you know he was sick?”

“No this is the American Horror Story or the worlds horror story is when you have somebody who on the outside is one thing and on the inside is something completely different and you don’t see it”

Peter Rodger, Elliot Rodger’s father

Other self-proclaimed ‘incels’ have been inspired by Rodgers. 

In 2018, minutes before he drove onto a sidewalk, killing 10 people in Toronto, Alek Minassian posted to Facebook that an “incel rebellion has already begun” and praised Elliot Rodgers. 

The attacks keep coming. And people have started to ask whether the incel community should now be deemed a terror threat. 

So the question is: how do we police this internet subculture? 

And what role do social media companies need to play?

***

To own a gun in the UK, you have to prove you’re not a danger to the public. To get one, you might have to be interviewed, inspectors might visit your property, your criminal record would be checked, and your GP might even be contacted.

And in Jake Davison’s case, the local police who conducted these checks have now come under scrutiny. 

Because it turns out that the 22-year-old had been accused of assault, and had his gun permit revoked in December. 

But Devon and Cornwall police returned his gun and permit last month. They are now under investigation by the Independent Office for Police Conduct.

And in response to the Plymouth shooting, the government has decided to rush through amendments to gun licensing laws which would make social media checks mandatory. 

“I am very clear about this we will always learn lessons from tragic events like this, particularly where there are key factors like online activity for example.”

Priti Patel, Home Secretary

This would mean police forces trawling through social media profiles as part of a gun license application. It may also mean looking back at current gun owners profiles. 

It’s not an easy job – there are over 500,000 shotgun certificate owners in the UK. 

But… it also means policing an increasingly complex – and expanding – online world. 

Incel communities use very specific language in their posts, often terms that only people with expert knowledge of the community – or part of it themselves – can easily understand the significance of. 

There’s also a fear that increased policing on public platforms will only push members to more secretive, anonymous forums.

Reddit did block the subreddit forum r/incels in 2017 because it broke its community guidelines about inciting violence. 

But a quick search will turn up other pages where incels come together. Including pages where Jake Davison posted – like r/virgin and r/mensrights – which have over 350,000 members between them. 

Jake Davison’s Reddit account was also reportedly banned the day before the shooting for harassing a 16 year old girl on the platform. 

YouTube has now taken down Davison’s account. 

It’s not the first time the platforms have taken action to try to limit misogynistic groups. At the beginning of August, Reddit took down the Men Go Their Own Way forum, known is an anti-feminist group which advocates for men to seperate their lives completely from women. 

But of course,despite action from Reddit and YouTube, there are plenty of other platforms that allow this kind of online discourse to go unchecked. 

Places like Parler.. Or Telegram.

***

The incel community is only a small part of a network of internet subcultures – and not all of them are dangerous. 

However, as Elliot Rodgers and Jake Davison show – they can turn violent with devastating consequences.

The question of how to police the world online is a complex one, and while Reddit and YouTube are now taking action, for Jake Davison’s victims – it all comes too late. 

Today’s episode was written by Phoebe Davis and produced by Ella Hill.