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The rise of the incels

The rise of the incels

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Incels – men who are ‘involuntarily celibate’ and blame women – are growing in numbers and getting angrier and more misogynistic. A man who goes by the name Alexander Ash is promoting their rise.


Transcript
nIMO OMER, narrating:

Hello, I’m Nimo and this is the Sensemaker.

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today, the rise of incel sites… and the man behind them. 

And just a warning, today’s episode contains descriptions of violence against women.

***

“To start, thank you for the introduction, I am Alexander Ash… and I manage the largest incel forum on the web…”

Alexander Ash speaking at the Organisation for the Prevention of Violence

Alexander Ash is the owner of an online forum called incels.co. 

He goes by the username, @Sergeant Incel.

Even his “name”, Alexander Ash, is a pseudonym, his real identity is unknown. 

That’s because incels.co is the biggest incel forum on the web.

“What are incels exactly? In short, they are people who cannot find a partner despite desiring one…”

Alexander Ash speaking at the Organisation for the Prevention of Violence

“Incels” are ‘involuntary celibates’; men who argue their inability to attract women makes them victims of oppression. 

They’re part of an online subculture that believe women won’t have sex with them because of how they look or their social status.

Misogyny – or hatred for women – is rife in these spaces.

It gets pretty extreme. Some users even call for women to be stripped of their rights and serve as state-mandated girlfriends, or that they should be auctioned off aged 18 to the highest bidder.

“The psychological profile of incels can be described in one sentence as depressed, anxious, lonely, and NEAT…”

William Costello speaking at the International Conference of Men’s Issues 2021

That’s William Costello, he’s a psychology PhD student at Swansea University who’s done a lot of research into incels.

“NEAT meaning, not engaged in education, employment, or training, with a tendency for interpersonal victimhood, and some cognitive distortions around female mate preferences”

William Costello speaking at the International Conference of Men’s Issues 2021

Alexander Ash first came across the incel community in 2017 on the discussion platform Reddit. 

When the site banned the controversial incel subreddit, he decided to set up an alternative digital space. 

And incels.co was born.

“A place that could enforce free speech within the boundaries of the law but not ban people from using non-politically correct speech.”

Alexander Ash speaking at the Organisation for the Prevention of Violence

Over the last nine months, the number of visits to incel forums, including the two Alexander Ash now runs, has increased more than five times.

So, why the sudden uptick in interest? 

***

To understand, you have to go back to Plymouth in March last year.

“A couple of gun shots went off and I ran opposite a pub and the owner came out and he shouted at me. He was like get in here, get in here now and so I forward rolled into the pub and I literally clung underneath one of the pool tables, hung on for dear life and I froze…”

Witness to the Plymouth shooting, ITV News

During a six-minute shooting spree, 22-year-old Jake Davison shot five people dead, including his mother and a three-year-old girl. Then he turned the gun on himself.

“Several people have been killed and injured in what police are calling a serious firearms incident in Plymouth. Local residents in Keyham are said to have heard loud bangs and gunshots…”

Sky News

It was Britain’s worst mass shooting in over a decade. 

Posts on Jake Davison’s YouTube account from just before the shooting showed him expressing misogynistic and homophobic views, as well as his despair at not finding a girlfriend.

“You know the reality is, love is for the young… love is for the young that’s the fact of the matter…”

Jake Davison speaking on YouTube

 Despite that, counter-terrorism officers have ruled out Jake Davison’s “incel beliefs” as a motive for the attack.

“I know it’s a movie but you know I like to think sometimes you know I’m a terminator or something, despite, despite um you know reaching almost total system failure he keeps trying to accomplish his mission you know.”

Jake Davison speaking on YouTube

But since the mass shooting, in the incel community, Jake Davison has become a hero.

Research by the Times and the Centre for Countering Digital Hate found monthly website visits to the three largest incel forums rose from about 115,000 in March – the time of the Plymouth shooting – to nearly 640,000 in November. 

And incels.co is the biggest.

So, who holds responsibility for what happens on these sites?

***

“It’s three years since the government promised an online safety bill. Meanwhile the damage caused by harmful content online is worse than ever…”

Keir Starmer speaking in Parliament

In March this year, the draft Online Safety Bill will be presented to Parliament. It will put a duty on service providers to restrict “illegal content”, making them criminally responsible for hate speech. 

Service providers are organisations that create and host web services. 

The service provider for incel.co is an American web company called Cloudfare which has been criticised before for failing to ban websites with hate speech content.   

Under the Online Safety Bill, it will be left up to the service provider to decide just what kind of content it believes is illegal.

There are criticisms as to whether this goes far enough – or whether it absolves individual users of responsibility.   

But for Alexander Ash, it’s all about addressing what he sees as a public misunderstanding.  
He believes inceldom isn’t a movement or political subculture, it’s simply a life situation.

“The gender question is because… the forum is male only. This is not because of misogyny but because incels, because of the nature of their problem which is as the name implies it involves sex or relationships with women, means that people can be themselves and just feel, you know it’s locker room talk, you can be yourself…”

Alexander Ash speaking at the Organisation for the Prevention of Violence

And in research papers and public talks he tries to distance incel culture from allegations of violence and misogyny.

Jake Davison isn’t the only person who has been associated with “incel” ideology who’s gone on to carry out a violent attack.

In fact, incel spaces have been linked to other mass casualty attacks including a 2014 shooting in Santa Barbara and another in 2018 in Toronto.

Alexander Ash blames the individual circumstances of the perpetrators – citing, for example, their mental health.

But the rise in interest in incel sites since the Plymouth shooting does seem to suggest that these types of real-world events can act as flare points – and attract new forum members. 

Particularly for people who are already vulnerable, online spaces such as incels.co could encourage more harm, both for users, and for wider society.

Today’s story was written and produced by Imy Harper.


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