A new BBC documentary is getting a lot of attention for exposing a disturbing part of the “Incel” community, a subculture consisting mostly of men that began as a source of common ground and evolved into one that led some individuals to real-life violence.
The group uses the term “incel,” a portmanteau of “involuntary celibate,” to describe themselves mainly in online forums.
“They're expressing some kind of blame towards women for their own personal situations and often worse than that. They're expressing hatred of women and [their] desire for violence to be committed against women,” said Adam Jessel, the executive producer of the BBC documentary, called “The Secret Life of Incels.”
But the number of people at risk of carrying out violence against women or any kind of physical harassment while self-identifying as an incel is “very small,” Jessel said.
“In the case of violence and mass murder, you only really need one person to two [who] moved from online hatred to real-world violence, and then you have untold misery and carnage that's caused,” he said.
The incel community garnered worldwide attention in 2014 when 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, a British-born student, went on a deadly rampage in which he stabbed, shot and hit people with his car near the University of California Santa Barbara campus. He killed six people and injured 12 others before taking his own life.
Prior to the attack, Rodger emailed his parents a menacing 137-page diary and posted a video on Youtube from inside the black BMW he later used as a weapon. Both contained a hate-filled, sexist tirade in which Rodger self-identified as an incel and blamed women for his loneliness.
Some experts say Rodger’s attack marked a shift in the community from one that lived online to one that, for a few, erupted into violent actions.
“Before Elliot Rodger, there were a number of online misogynistic communities operating,” said Dr. Kaitlyn Regehr, a digital culture expert at the University of Kent. “But Elliot Rodger, really flips the switch from a community that is angry online, operating within the digital space, to a community that has the potential to carry out real acts of violence.
Just last year, two suspects in mass attacks referenced Rodger in their motives. In April 2018, one suspect allegedly praised Rodger online shortly before he used his van to mow down pedestrians on a busy street in Toronto, killing 10 people.
Then in November, another suspect posted videos online identifying himself as an incel and sympathizing with Rodger before allegedly opening fire on a yoga studio in Tallahassee, Florida, killing two people.
When the incel movement first began online in the late 90s, it was seen by many as a comforting resource, a place to belong for those who had no sense of belonging.
It’s a space that Jack Peterson sought out as a struggling teenager.
“I think what attracts men to the incel communities is just feeling like they have no other place to go...if they're rejected by women, if they're rejected by even men, if people don't want to be their friend — that sort of thing," he said. "The incel community is a place for them to congregate and actually find people to talk to for once rather than just stay in isolation."
It was a space where Peterson said he felt that he could post videos in which he espoused his feelings of rejection. He said eventually he became so sucked into this world that he became a moderator for one of the incel forums.
“I think there's tens of thousands of men who feel like this,” Peterson said. “It's OK to feel rejected. It's okay to feel like an outcast. I think it's not okay to get sucked into this negative mindset.”
Peterson said he did not tolerate violent talks or threats on the forum he moderated. If he felt someone had “crossed the line into [making] threatening” comments, they would be banned and, in some cases, the authorities would be contacted, he said.
“I know on numerous occasions there would be communication with the FBI to make sure that nothing actually crosses into reality, that it just stays a post on an imageboard or on a website,” he said.
Peterson decided to leave the community after the Toronto attack.
“I didn't want to be a part of a community that supports violence even if it's in a joking way,” he said.
But Peterson said most incels are not violent and that within the incel community itself, Rodger is not taken seriously.
“He's talked a lot about incel communities often in sort of...I would say an ironic, kind of praising, way,” he said. “There's a lot of memes about him. There's a lot of, sort of, you know, jokey YouTube videos about him."
“People think he's perceived as some sort of a hero figure," he added. "But I think he's more kind of just made fun of for the most part."
Although it's not the norm, Jessel’s BBC documentary uncovers disturbing instances of men expressing simmering anger toward women that sometimes manifests into real-world actions.
One subject of the film, named Catfishman, whose full face is never shown, self-identifies as an incel and said he humiliates women on camera as a way to seek revenge.
He said he created a fake dating profile to trick women into meeting him for a date. When they show up, he said he films himself shouting insults at them as they reject him because they've seen he doesn't match the photo on his profile.
“It’s kinda like a victory for...the incel community, basically,” Catfishman says in the film. “This is basically like my retribution, in a sense. You know, all those girls that treated me like shit. All those girls that attacked me, all those girls that rejected me...in a sense, it makes me feel good.”
Jessel called Catfishman’s behavior “very alarming and very disturbing.”
“When we were making the program we asked ourselves a lot of questions,” Jessel said. “On the one hand, we wanted to show people that this stuff is going on. This stuff is out there. On the other hand, we were conscious that we were giving airtime to this guy as well, who...has views that are repellent.”
In the BBC film, Catfishman is asked pointed questions about his actions to expose what drives his rage, one of which was, “Do you feel entitled to women?”
“No, I don’t feel entitled but...these types of women are...ignoring you and you try to talk to them and you try for their numbers...and they reject you,” he says. “It makes me feel inferior, it makes me feel like I’m not good enough for the females.”
The Anti-Defamation League is one organization that has been tracking incel communities and identifying them as an emerging domestic threat.
“It operates in some of the same ways that we see other extremist movements operate,” said Oren Segal, the director of ADL’s Center on Extremism. “There's this online community of people who support hatred of women, glorification of violence and these have an impact on the ground, whether it's through mass shootings or through the development of an ideology that becomes more mainstream and acceptable.”
Segal said there are often a lot of discussions after mass murders about what law enforcement can do to prevent these attacks, but he said it’s also on the tech industry to do a better job of policing their users “in terms of making sure people don't violate the terms of services.”
“We need to ask ourselves…what can the actual users do,” he said. “Tips have always been helpful for law enforcement.”
“So it's a holistic thing,” Segal continued. “And it's not easy. But the combination of law enforcement. Tech industry responsibility and everyday people knowing that they have a stake in this. Hopefully we can keep this down.”