The media, politicians and social-media pundits have spent much of the past decade arguing about the impact of online radicalisation. The conversation has been wide-ranging – from white supremacy to QAnon to Donald Trump – but often returns to incel culture: the ideology that promotes a hatred of women, driven by the sexual rejection experienced by “involuntary celibates”.
Incel ideology has been behind some of the worst violence driven by online radicalisation. Before the incel Elliot Rodger murdered six people in Isla Vista, California, in 2014, he posted a 141-page manifesto and a video of himself online, ranting about his grievances with women over his virginity. In 2018 Alek Minassian drove a van into crowds in Toronto, Canada, killing ten people, after posting a tribute to Rodger on Facebook alongside the words: “The Incel Rebellion has already begun!” The same year, a man who made YouTube videos about being an incel murdered two women at a yoga studio in Florida. In the UK in 2021, a young man who had consumed and shared incel-related content online for years killed five people in Plymouth. And these are, of course, the attacks that have happened: other planned mass shootings targeting women have been discovered and prevented.
The incel ideology behind such attacks was bred in niche forums. Users on websites such as 4chan, 8chan and Reddit encouraged these views in spaces that had tens of thousands of users but were small compared with more popular platforms such as Instagram or Facebook. Though their beliefs were increasingly common, they remained fringe. But many commentators suggested that these young men were a warning sign of a much greater, more endemic violence when these ideas broke into the mainstream. If such violence was to be prevented, drastic measures needed to be taken; despite the volume of discussion, they weren’t.
The past 18 months have been marked by an extreme spike in violent, misogynistic rhetoric on mainstream social media, particularly on platforms popular with Gen Z. This has been exemplified most clearly by the rise of Andrew Tate, an “alpha influencer” who has described women as property and has argued victims of rape must “bear responsibility” for their assault, and who has become incredibly popular among teenage boys since going viral on TikTok. Despite being banned from almost every mainstream platform – and being charged in Romania with rape and human trafficking earlier this year, which he denies – his content has continued to proliferate. Tate isn’t alone. Thousands of copycat influencers have also gained huge audiences of young male viewers by promoting the idea that women are lesser than men, are whores, and are, in some circumstances, deserving of male violence.
Now, nearly ten years on from Isla Vista, the results of that wave are starting to show. Last week, a YouGov survey found most children aged 6-15 had heard of Tate, and that one in six 13-15-year-old boys had a positive view of him. Nearly a quarter of this 13-15-year-old male demographic also said they agreed with Tate’s ideas about masculinity. One in eight boys aged 6-15 said they agreed with his views on women. This echoes a Piper Sandler survey of 14,500 American teens last autumn, which found Tate ranked as their favourite influencer (in the most recent survey, he dropped to number two).
Incel ideology is now entering the mainstream. Rather than lurking in “dark corners” of the internet, content promoting it can be easily found on Instagram or TikTok (the algorithms for which will send you down a rabbit hole of similar videos and posts). These ideas are no longer niche, but completely accessible. This is especially dangerous because it isn’t just fully grown men being radicalised against women, but boys. Deradicalising an adult who has been exposed to many other world-views is difficult; deradicalising a child whose first understanding of the world has been shaped by these ideas is likely near-impossible.
We are at a moment when susceptible young boys are being spoon-fed highly damaging ideas on some of the world’s biggest platforms. To consider this a saturation point and not just the beginning would be naive. Until there is concerted, wide-scale action taken against misogynistic ideologies, not just by social media platforms but by governments that provide support for children who may be susceptible and intervene when the signs arise, we should expect more deaths of women and girls. We can no longer pretend incel and other misogynistic ideologies are confined to niche internet spaces: online, they permeate the mainstream. Violent attacks will soon do the same in the physical world.
[See also: Trapped in the AI echo chamber]