In the aftermath of a deadly van attack in Toronto on Monday, it emerged that Alek Minassian, who is charged in the killings, had posted a Facebook message before the attack began linking himself to the ‘Incel’ online subculture.
Ten people died and another 14 were injured in the incident.
Incels — it stands for “involuntarily celibate” — are a misogynist online culture of men who don’t have access to sex and believe they are entitled to it. This grievance can spill over into violent fantasy, such as this now-deleted post on the incels.me forum from late March, in which a frequent contributor hopes that someone will ram a truck into “a school parade or something.”
Trying to trace the relationship between violent fantasy online and real-world physical violence is challenging, experts say.
“Separating those two is extremely difficult because we know that the Timothy McVeighs and the mass shooters and the people who would run a van into a bunch of people in broad daylight are few and far between,” says University of Toronto professor Jooyoung Lee, an expert on gun violence.
“No matter how many comments and how many statements people make about doing these kinds of heinous crimes, the people who actually go out and commit this kind of violence are still, statistically, extremely rare.”
But the rhetoric of far-right digital culture can and has led to real attacks, warns Keegan Hankes of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).
“We saw that the ideology in those spaces was furthering the sense of grievance, the wound collection, getting adherents from people who were ingesting it to feel like the damaged party, like the offended party. Those tend to be markers for people who do go on to commit acts of mass violence.”
“Obviously not everyone who is going to consume this content is going to go on to do something bad, but it only takes one for a tragedy to unfold.”
There is a significant spillover between white supremacist and male supremacist groups, Hankes said. (The SPLC started tracking male supremacist hate groups earlier this year.)
“The alt-right is not exactly one-to-one with the incel or male supremacy community, though some of the ideas are shared,” Hankes says.
On the other hand, some violent rhetoric is just meaningless noise, Lee says.
“In the aftermath of this tragedy, hindsight is always 20/20. There’s this tendency to sort of work backwards and say, ‘Of course, all of the signs were there.’”
“If we’re really being honest about online behaviours, and the things that people say on online forums, whether that’s social media or Reddit, I think we would have a hard time empirically teasing apart what is a legitimate threat of violence and what is bluster or performance.”
Forums like Facebook have a formal structure that (in theory) can be used to curb hate speech. “If people running the platforms have the power to keep it off the platforms, they should,” Hankes says, but independent forums like incels.me and 4chan are beyond any hope of control.
If possible, he says a better solution is to try to intervene early with people who seem susceptible to these kinds of messages.
“Individuals who imbibe this stuff and sit in these echo chambers – it’s a little bit like a downward spiral. Once you’ve accepted some of these axioms – it’s women’s fault that these things are happening to me, or some other protected class is the reason my life isn’t going as well as it should – it only goes down from there and you can start getting more and more extreme.”
For its part, the media has the difficult task of delving deep enough into toxic online cultures that may have influenced a violent incident like Monday’s to try to help explain them, but not to the extent that they’re glamourized, for vulnerable people.
“It’s a hard balance to strike,” Hankes says. “I think the best strategy is sunlight, and full-throated explanations of what people believe and what the communities are like. You could not talk about it, but that doesn’t do anything good for the problem.”