The incel movement is a perfect case study of what can happen when an initially innocent group of lonely people looking for kinship and support get twisted and perverted through the amplification and extremification of digital media.

I’ve said earlier that social media has become a seemingly sentient organism that feeds off our primal id and then regurgitates those baser impulses back to us in high-octane form, not only intensified but veiled by the normalcy of “community” – Hey, look, others feel this way, too!

Today, on the so-called dark web, there are all sorts of groups catering to the once socially outcast; entire virtual communities devotedto everything from bondage enthusiasts, to cannibalism, to pedophile groups, to all manner of fetishes and/or deviancies. Some might say, “Hey, it’s not such a bad thing to have certain fetish enthusiasts come out of the shame, isolation, and darkness of their innermost and socially unacceptable impulses and come up into the warm bathing light of fellow peers who feel the same way. After all, our need to find community and a like-minded tribe is embedded in our psychological DNA.” And that may be true for all sorts of fetishes, as many fetish groups are fairly innocuous, and, according to the values of our laissez-faire society, we should embrace a live-and-let-live, no-harm-no-foul approach.

The problem is that some fetish groups can cross the line of “no harm, no foul” into full-blown illegality or violence. Complicating things even further when it comes to fetish sites are the distinctions between fantasy and reality; for example, in the infamous “Cannibal Cop” case in New York, where an NYPD officer who was a member of an online cannibal chat group and had been arrested for conspiracy to commit murder, lawyers (successfully) argued that their client’s lurid internet activities (including instructions on how to cook specific real-life people) fell under the category of fantasy and First Amendment–protected free speech.

In that particular case, it did appear that the disgraced officer and his chat room buddies were, indeed, merely engaging in fantasy – a form of disturbing and perverse internet cannibal cosplay. Yet there are many other examples where such sordid internet fantasies that are shared on various chat sites do indeed turn into the real thing, with often deadly outcomes – from abductions to actual cannibalism. Unfortunately, in our modern digital landscape, it becomes exceedingly difficult for even trained mental health professionals to discern between those who may be living out a fantasy online and those who may be pouring kerosene on an already simmering fire of insanity and hatred and who may be pushed over the edge toward real-life violence by the extremification of their digital immersion.

The other confounding issue with some of the more troubling online groups is that some may start off as one thing – usually benign and harmless – then mutate into something quite different and potentially more lethal. That’s exactly what happened with the incel movement, which had started out as a support group for the lonely and awkward of all genders, but has morphed into a subculture of misogynistic and angry young men, some of whom have committed mass murder in the name of their mutated and misguided “cause.”

There are a couple of different versions regarding the origin story and creation of the incel movement, yet both describe a very different entity from the one that it’s evolved into today. The first version is that a single, shy, introverted, and lonely teenager from the West Coast in the late ’90s dipped his toe into the embryonic internet hoping to find community and connection in the early days of chat forums; community and connection that he was too shy to find in the real world. Sure enough, he discovered that there were many others like him who also felt awkward in real life, especially when it came to sex and dating.

These lovable yet romantically challenged souls eventually became a community and began calling their issues “involuntary celibacy,” and later adopted the shorthand of “incels” to describe themselves. According to the founding member – that original teen, who is now a grown man using the handle “Reformedincel” – the incel world of the 1990s and early 2000s was a friendly place where awkward men and women would talk to one another about relationship support and advice.

The other incel origin story attributes the founding of the incel movement to a female Canadian university student known only by her first name, Alana, who in 1993 created a website to discuss her lack of sexual activity called “Alana’s Involuntary Celibacy Project.” Her website and her later mailing list were intended for “anybody of any gender who was lonely, had never had sex or who hadn’t had a relationship in a long time.”

Alana stopped participating in her online incel project in the year 2000 when she passed the baton to somebody else, but was saddened to see what her creation has become: “It definitely wasn’t a bunch of guys blaming women for their problems. That’s a pretty sad version of this phenomenon that’s happening today. Things have changed in the last 20 years.”

Unfortunately, things in the modern incel world have gone way beyond just blaming women. With technology and the internet acting as a hatred accelerant, sexual frustration has turned to hatred, and hatred has spilled over into full-blown premeditated acts of violence and murder against women – and the men that they love. Indeed, since 2014, at least eight mass murders with 61 fatalities have been attributed to men who either self-identified as incels or who had incel-related writings on the internet.

Today, incel chat rooms, rather than being support groups for the lonely, have become breeding grounds for the angry. When stray dogs in a shelter are given love and positive attention, they develop caring and loving dispositions; but if they’re put together with other aggressive dogs, each dog’s aggression amplifies the pack’s aggression and creates the climate that shapes an aggressive temperament. Similarly, these incel chat rooms and all the other online hate groups create a pack mentality that inflames their members as they breed hatred and aggression. Technology then greases the tracks of this dynamic by rewarding the most vitriolic and hateful content in the never-ending battle for online attention.

Beyond creating an aggressive pack or mob mentality, the incel movement is also a Werther effect–style of social contagion, where one glorified individual acts as an inspiration and role model for a cult–like movement. And that pivotal alpha incel – the much-copied Werther of his day – was the sick and misguided Elliot Rodger. On May 23, 2014, Elliot Rodger went on a shooting, stabbing, and vehicular rampage where he killed six and injured 14 near the UC–Santa Barbara campus.

A child of privilege, Rodger was the son of Hollywood filmmaker Peter Rodger, a director of The Hunger Games, and a Chinese mother, Li Chen, who worked in films as well. Entitled and with the grandiosity of a true narcissist, Rodger bared his troubled mind and soul in his 141-page manifesto, describing his thirst for revenge against the women who had rejected him and a hatred for the men who they had given their hearts and affection toward. In that document, he proclaimed himself “the closest thing to a living God” and described himself as the “ideal magnificent gentleman,” who couldn’t understand why, at the age of 22, not only was he still a virgin but he had yet to even kiss a girl. Yet, as many narcissists do, he veiled himself in a cloak of victimhood and angrily blamed others for his unhappiness and lonely plight.

It’s unsettling and eerie to watch his smug, arrogant, and villainish laughter on the “retribution” video that he made the day before the murders, as he expresses his hatred for the women who denied him “love and sex,” and for the “obnoxious brutes” who received the affection that he so dearly craved. Not to exclude anyone, he also expressed a hatred for all of humanity, which he called a “wretched and depraved species,” saying he would “slaughter and annihilate everyone” if he could – and be a god in the process.

Throughout the repetitive video, like a true self-centered narcissist, he keeps referencing the “suffering” that he’s been “forced to endure” as he sits behind the wheel of his BMW, and his manifesto is filled with his delusional rants as he declares: “I am the true victim in all of this. I am the good guy.”

His perceived rejection drove his decision on whom and where to murder: he chose to attack the Alpha Phi sorority because they were the “hottest” at his college and “the kind of girls I’ve always wanted but was never able to have” and said he had “no choice but to exact revenge on the society” that had created these untenable – to him at least – conditions. After all the carnage was over, he took the path of the fictional Werther and shot himself in the head.

The amazing part of this story is how, like the fictional Werther and his unrequited love, Elliot Rodger became a role model and modern-day hero for all the other lost and misguided incels who viewed him as a martyr. Virtually canonised by his online fans, where mass violence by incels is regularly referred to as “going ER” and, in true digital social contagion fashion, he’s been referenced as the inspiration by the other incel mass murderers.

Rodger even had a short film trailer made in his honor called The Supreme Gentleman, comprising excerpts from his YouTube clips. In short, Elliot Rodger was the original social influencer for the misguided incel movement – which, let’s not forget, had started as a well-intentioned inclusive online support group for the lonely and awkward. While there are several other high-profile incel mass murderers in addition to Elliot Rodger, perhaps the other most notorious incel was Alek Minassian, who used a Ryder truck to murder ten and injure another 16 in Toronto on April 23, 2018.

Shortly before his attack, he’d posted a military-style post on Facebook, citing the “incel rebellion” and giving kudos to Elliot Rodger: “Private (recruit) Minassian, infantry unit 00010, wishing to speak to Sgt 4Chan please. C23249161. The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!”

The “movement” was spreading and gaining followers. One incel follower posted after Minassian’s attack: “I hope this guy wrote a manifesto because he could be our next new saint!” Police said that Minassian had been radicalised by online incel communities, and in a police interrogation video, he tells the officers that he’s a virgin motivated by a hatred of “Chads and Staceys,” the term incels use to describe sexually active men and women. The video also showed Minassian sayingthat he hoped the attack would “inspire future masses to join me” in committing acts of violence as a part of the incel “uprising.”

Meanwhile, Alana, the alleged founder of the incel movement, was repulsed to learn what the incel subculture had become and tried to distance herself from her errant creation, like a remorseful Robert Oppenheimer, whose invention had been used for such great devastation: “Like a scientist who invented something that ended up being a weapon of war, I can’t uninvent this word, nor restrict it to the nicer people who need it.”

She expressed regret that her vision of an “inclusive community” for people of all genders who were sexually deprived due to “social awkwardness, marginalisation, or mental illness” had turned into an
internet-fueled hate group that was inspiring mass murders. But that’s the nature of the beast. It needs and breeds hatred.

Over the past 20 years, the incel community, which, by some estimates, numbers in the tens of thousands of followers, has morphed from an inclusive support group into a virulent and misogynistic social contagion that spreads an ideology that has come to be called “the blackpill.” According to journalist and incel researcher Zack Beauchamp, the blackpill (a play on The Matrix’s blue pill / red pill reality paradigm) is “a profoundly sexist ideology that . . . amounts to a fundamental rejection of women’s sexual emancipation, labeling women shallow, cruel creatures who will choose only the most attractive men if given the choice. Taken to its logical extreme, the blackpill can lead to violence.”

The incel movement is a classic social contagion, taking vile, hateful, and repressed impulses found within our society and then using technology and digital media to amplify those tendencies. As Beauchamp describes it, “Incels are not merely an isolated subculture, disconnected from the outside world. They are a dark reflection of a set of social values about women that is common, if not dominant, in broader Western society. The intersection between this age-old misogyny and new information technologies is reshaping our politics and culture in a way we may only dimly understand – and may not be prepared to confront.”

Excerpted with permission from Digital Madness: How Social Media is Driving Our Mental Health Crisis – and How To Restore Our Sanity, Nicholas Kardaras, Pan Macmillan.