Shadowy online subculture in spotlight after Toronto van attack

A Facebook message attributed to accused killer Alek Minassian has led to scrutiny on the “incel” movement and online communities steeped in misogyny.

Photo: Steve Russell/Toronto Star

 

In the chaotic aftermath of a mass murder in North America, two things are predictable. One is that there will be wild speculation over the killer’s background and motive, with people guessing about specific aspects of his identity.

The other is that only one prediction will hold true in nearly every case.

“I knew that it was going to be a man,” said Michael Kaufman, a member of the G7 Gender Equality Advisory Council. “Virtually all of the school shootings — the mass shootings, the terrorist attacks, whether it’s a white nationalist terrorist attack or a religiously inspired terrorist attack — they’re almost always committed by men.

“And the incredible thing? We don’t focus on that,” he continued. “We instantly go to step two: what was his motivation? What was his psychological problem? By jumping to that second step, we’re neither going to be able to address the underlying causes or understand these people — or find solutions.”

On Monday, a rented van jumped a curb on Yonge St. south of Finch Ave. and began deliberately mowing down pedestrians, leading to the worst mass murder in Toronto’s history.

Ten people died and another 16 were injured. Alek Minassian, 25, faces 10 charges of first-degree murder and 13 counts of attempted murder, with three more attempted murder charges pending.

Details about Minassian’s life remain scant but, in the scramble for answers, some have pointed to his autism spectrum disorder — even though experts stress there is no scientific link between the condition and a propensity for violence.

A more relevant point may be the fact that Minassian is male. According to a study by Columbia University forensic psychiatrist Michael Stone, of 235 mass murders in the United States between 1913 and 2015 involving four or more deaths, 96 per cent were perpetrated by men.

“Mass murder is an almost exclusively male phenomenon,” Stone writes in “Mass Murder, Mental Illness and Men.” “Most mass murders are planned well in advance of the outburst, usually as acts of revenge or retribution for perceived slights and wrongs.”

A Facebook post attributed to Minassian suggests retribution directed at women as a motive. The message referenced one of the internet’s most unabashedly misogynistic communities: young men who identify online as “incels” — or involuntary celibates — because they are frustrated by their inability to find romantic relationships or sex.

Minassian’s online history will form an important aspect of the unfolding homicide probe: posts he wrote, searches he made, and online communities he may have frequented. Investigators seized his Facebook profile to archive its content, including a “cryptic” Facebook message posted just minutes before the van rampage, according to Toronto police Det. Sgt. Graham Gibson.

The investigation will examine whether sexual frustration or anger towards women helped form the motive. While police say there is currently no evidence that women were targeted, eight of the 10 fatalities were female. Police will scour surveillance and witness video for indications the van was steered deliberately towards female pedestrians, an investigator said Friday.

Toronto police Insp. Bryan Bott told reporters that “all avenues” will be explored when it comes probing Minassian’s online activity, including any possible link to the incel community.

“Where that investigation goes, it’s too early to tell,” Bott said.

What’s certain, however, is that the internet has provided fertile breeding ground for misogyny and sexism. Those who study online misogyny say incels are just a sliver of a broader online ecosystem dubbed the “manosphere,” where seething anti-feminist hatred has been intensifying over the last several years.

The manosphere is a loose assemblage of blogs, forums and pages scattered across YouTube, Facebook and Reddit, as well as 4chan, the notorious messaging board widely associated with trolling culture, conspiracy theories and far-right extremism.

Its roots can be traced back to the 1970s, when a men’s liberation movement emerged in response to second-wave feminism, according to a 2017 study by Debbie Ging, an associate professor with Dublin City University.

The movement was meant to critique conventional understandings of masculinity but quickly splintered into pro- and anti-feminist factions, “due largely to disagreements over the claim that male privilege adversely affects women,” Ging wrote. The anti-feminists believed men were in decline and this strain of thinking has now permeated the manosphere, where a “widespread and particularly malicious anti-feminist men’s movement” has been incubating.

“It’s a vast and growing network of misogynists — there’s no other word for them,” said Nicolette Little, who is pursuing her doctorate in feminist media studies at the University of Calgary. The manosphere is “very angry” with women and feminism, and online groups provide “space for that toxicity, for those ideas to be shared, proliferated,” Little said.

There is significant overlap between the racist alt-right movement and the manosphere, where major themes include misogyny, sexual strategies and men’s rights. A popular trope is to be “red pilled,” a reference to the 1999 movie The Matrix, where the protagonist Neo is asked to choose between a blue pill — which returns him to his normal life of ignorant bliss — or the red pill, which will reveal the true order of the world.

In the manosphere, “being red-pilled means eschewing liberal ideology and recognizing that men, not women, are the oppressed class,” according to a 2017 report by Alice Marwick and Rebecca Lewis with Data & Society, a think tank specializing in the cultural and social impact of the internet.

“The connecting tissue of the manosphere is that men are actually the ones suffering in modern society, and our laws and society is now balanced in favour of women,” Lewis said.

There’s intermingling within the manosphere: There are Pick-Up Artists (PUAs), a “seduction community” that trades in strategies for getting sex; Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs), who feel boys and men are victimized, particularly by feminists; and Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW), who vow to never date, marry or have children.

And then there are incels. The phrase was coined in the 1990s by a Canadian woman who started a website for lonely singles. In 2001, researchers from Georgia State University surveyed 82 involuntary celibates in an online discussion group and found the majority were young, white and male. These people feel “despair, depression, frustration and a loss of confidence” because of their inability to have sexual relationships, the researchers concluded. They looked to the internet, not for sexual stimulation but for “moral support.”

Fast-forward 17 years and some incel forums have flourished to 40,000 or more members. They have also developed their own culture, replete with insider-speak. Incels are “betas,” conventionally attractive men are “Chads,” and the women who date them — and spurn incels — are “Stacys.”

Lewis said many incels self-identify as autistic. “You get a lot of people kind of embracing that identity, whether or not they’ve actually been diagnosed with autism,” she said. “It’s become this broader meme for being socially awkward and that’s yet another reason why they don’t see themselves as advantaged or privileged in society.”

Some incels discuss their sadness or confusion on forums like Incels.me. One user, who identified himself as Jack Peterson, called it a “support group.” “Incels.me is my main place as far as venting goes, just because it tends to be more brutally honest than the rest of these types of communities,” said Peterson, who declined to give his real name, in a phone interview.

Peterson insists that only a “vocal minority” of users are misogynists, but a quick glance at the website reveals a startling degree of anti-women hatred. There are several posts idolizing Elliot Rodger, the California man who killed six people because he was sexually frustrated, with some commenters encouraging others to follow in his footsteps and commit their own “ER” attack. The Facebook post attributed to Minassian concluded with the phrase “All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!” After Monday’s attack, many incels celebrated gleefully on Incels.me, while others blamed women for the attack. “By having sex with the guy you could’ve saved 10 lives,” one commenter said.

“It’s worthwhile to see how incels are reacting and many are thrilled about it,” said Lewis. “It’s easy to see how this pent-up frustration is manifesting as violence. There are posts talking about, ‘How else can we act on this?’ and people are promoting acid attacks, rapes, poking holes in condoms.”

Jamil Jivani, author of the book Why Young Men: Rage, Race and the Crisis of Identity, believes disaffected men are drawn to extremist views because they offer an identity of sorts — telling them how to think and feel, and providing community and affirmation.

What could help counteract this, he thinks, is a broader definition of masculinity. He cites Toronto police Const. Ken Lam, who arrested Minassian without using force.

“This guy, being restrained and calm, and not being reactive?” Jivani said. “That is how you diversify masculinity.”

Kaufman said society is failing boys and men by perpetuating ideas that they have to always be dominant and in control.

“Many men who commit acts of violence … there are two things we know about them: They’re much less likely to have gender-equitable attitudes, and much less likely to ask for help,” he said.

“When you combine that power and that entitlement, with that personal insecurity about being a real man, it has the potential to be a lethal combination.”

Source :

Toronto Star

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