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13 August 2021

Why the Plymouth shooting was preventable

We know the dangers of online radicalisation. But governments have failed to act. 

By Sarah Manavis

In 2014, Elliot Rodger, a 22-year-old self-described “incel” – short for “involuntary celibate” – killed six people and injured 14 in a stabbing and shooting spree in Isla Vista, California. After the attack, before taking his own life, Rodger uploaded a racist, misogynistic “manifesto” online, and a YouTube video of the same ilk. A spring of copycat attackers followed, who may have been inspired by Rodger, such as the fellow self-described incel, Alek Minassian, in Toronto in 2018 and a fellow manifesto-creator who killed 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, a year later.

It’s feels like a cliché to outline what the term “incel” means. It is someone – almost always a man – who is sexually abstinent despite their wish not to be. Incels direct their anger at their involuntary celibacy as hate towards women, the sexual liberation of whom, incels think, has led to a swell of sluts and nymphomaniacs who refuse to have sex with good, nice guys like them. 

And it’s now a further cliché to tell you about online radicalisation. This often happens to lonely, isolated people, who feel rejected by society for not fitting social norms, and who then reach for extreme ideologies perpetuated by other lonely people as a means of explaining away, and regaining control over, their misfortune.

These are clichés because the so-called “dark corners of the internet” – where all of the above thrives – aren’t that dark anymore. Maybe a few years ago, you could have claimed these spaces were niche, but in 2021, we know these stories well. 

And yet, on 12 August, Jake Davison, a man who had espoused the tenets of incel ideology, posted hateful YouTube videos and repeated popular online conspiracy theories, killed six people, including himself, in a shooting in Plymouth. The 22-year-old had spent many years posting QAnon talking points and spoke about his disgust at modern women having been “torn apart” by “millions” of attractive men. 

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This is the part in the article where I tell you how accessible all of this information was – that until a few hours ago, you could still see his Facebook page and YouTube channel, where he regularly posted and engaged with comments. It’d be the part where I tell you that the police had “multiple dealings” with Davison in the past, particularly as he was a firearms licence holder. And yet – and yet – here we are. 

It’s easy to look at the past several years and think that significant steps have been taken to combat online radicalisation. Many media outlets have published stories about it, politicians have spoken about it, and campaign groups and academics are dedicated to analysing the problem. Yet despite all this exposure – and even greater focus on the real harm the internet can bring (such as facilitating the spread of misinformation about Covid and radicalising the mob that stormed the US Capitol building in January) in the last 18 months – we have had no constructive conversation about what can and should be done to prevent this now inevitable, completely predictable, regular violence. 

Instead of listening to the countless reports on acts that were carried out by radicalised people in the past, and the analysis of what needs to be done to keep online radicalisation from happening, those in power have been able to appear as though coverage is somehow equal to mitigation. In the last year, in particular, we’ve seen many people’s minds warped by misinformation, but our conversations have not evolved. Why is nothing formal being done to help tackle radicalisation? Or those in power urgently proposing a solution? Where is the serious intervention to stop the next shooting? 

I have written this article countless times. This is when I would typically tell you why online radicalisation is dangerous and how it can start small, with someone you love expressing opinions that initially appear harmless, but grow into a life-defining obsession and lead to violence such as what Plymouth suffered yesterday. I would say why, now, we need to pay attention, why, now, we need formal interventions, and why now our governments must do something immediate and drastic. But I’m tired of writing this article again and again. Tired of begging people to care about online radicalisation and to recognise what the internet can do to vulnerable people. The way that online radicalisation, or “red-pilling“, can so often lead to a weapon ending up in a vulnerable person’s hands. 

Seeing what happened in Plymouth yesterday, I feel numb to that potent cocktail of vulnerability, misogyny and access to a firearm. Because it is the precise blueprint of previous attacks of this nature. What happened in Plymouth was preventable – but until someone with power acts to try to prevent this well-known cycle, we should only expect it to happen again.

[See also: Rise of the keyboard fascists: how the internet enables radicalisation]

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