We know that Alek Minassian is facing 10 counts of first-degree murder, one for each of the people he is accused of killing in Toronto. Police say he drove a van into pedestrians in a busy shopping district in the city. What we don’t know yet, for sure, is why.
When such an attack occurs, people search for an explanation in whatever information is available. Those scouring the suspect’s social-media presence believed they’ve found it, in a post that appeared there the same day as the attack. The post, now deleted by Facebook along with Minassian’s entire account, praised “Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger” and declared that the “Incel Rebellion has already begun!”
Police, and Facebook, have not yet confirmed that Minassian wrote this post himself, or that it bears a direct connection to the suspect’s motive. Regardless of its connection to the attacks, the post’s viral spread has had the effect of introducing the concept of “incel” to a wider audience. Even in 2018, when the boundaries between the dark corners of the Internet and mainstream audiences are as permeable as ever, the concept of “incels” has mainly remained out of the spotlight.
Incel is partially explained by what it stands for: involuntarily celibate. But in online culture, “incel” means more than just a support group for the lonely and shy — it refers to a specific, insular, self-radicalized community with roots in the anti-feminist, misogynist “manosphere” and 4chan culture.
Incels share a central thesis: that their involuntary celibacy results from the shallowness of women, who they think want to date only traditionally attractive men. Their members have, in a way, leaned in to being “ugly.” Incel posts often refer to men and women who do have sex by the jock-ish names “Chad” and “Stacy,” the subjects of a river of insulting and derogatory memes. “I am Going to Start Shaming Sluts at My University!” read one post on a now-deleted subreddit for incels. As the Southern Poverty Law Center noted, the more extreme posts on incel forums advocate sexual violence against women.
“Frustration with relationships and lack thereof are pretty common human experiences. What makes the incel culture different is that these are primarily heterosexual white men who are directing their anger in a misogynistic way towards women,” said Ross Haenfler, an associate professor of sociology at Grinnell College who studies subcultures and masculinity. “There may be some real pain there, but that pain results from a misplaced anger.”
Incel communities have existed online for a long time, in one form or another. In 2001, Georgia State University researchers studied a small sample of people who were active in these communities. The respondents were mostly white, young men who said that their involuntary celibacy had links to negative self-image, a sense that their sexual development was behind that of their peers, and depression, the study found.
Today, incel communities exist on Reddit — although some of their subreddits were recently banned — and on 4chan. There are also incel sites with dedicated message boards and, increasingly, closed chat rooms on the message app Discord, with moderators who vet their membership to keep out the prying eyes of observers and journalists.
It is not clear whether, or where, the Toronto suspect engaged incel’s online communities, but a post on Minassian’s page is an unambiguous reference to several incel memes: “Private (Recruit) Minassian Infantry 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!”
Each of these phrases has an explanation, but let’s focus on the most troubling: Elliot Rodger.
In 2014, Rodger killed six people in California. He left behind an extensive digital history, including a lengthy manifesto and a YouTube video in which he vowed a “day of retribution” against the women who had sexually rejected him. Some incel-linked forums, such as the “Forever Alone” subreddit (which, its moderators say, does not consider itself part of the “incel” community), automatically delete posts that mention Rodger’s name. The reason they have to do that? Some members of the darker parts of the incel Internet elevate Rodger — and now, Minassian — as heroes.
One user of incels.me referred to “That moment when this random dude killed more people than the supreme gentleman Elliot,” as rumors began to spread that Minassian might be one of them. Another anonymous user opined that the women of Toronto deserved to die:
It bears repeating that we still don’t know the motive in the Toronto attack. The victims are “predominantly female,” police have said but have not elaborated on whether the victims were targeted.
The incel championing of Rodger and Minassian is “a convenient, if disturbing symbol” of the “aggrieved entitlement” that permeates all of incel culture, Haenfler said. Even when women are the victims of violence, incel logic still can blame those women for being victimized. It is women, the logic goes, that drove men like Rodger to do what they did.
If you visit an incel community online, you’ll find a performance, all for the benefit of the wider audience that is paying attention to them. On incels.me, moderators have posted a statement directed at the public saying that Minassian was not a member of that board and that “Being incel has no relation whatsoever with violence, aggression, misogyny, or any other negative connotation.” The moderators also appear to be banning members who posted some of the more egregious comments about Minassian.
Other posts there mock and insult the “normies” who have flocked to the board to see the comments they read about in the news.
This is normal for the fringe, when a sub-community becomes part of a mainstream story. Its members treat the media attention that follows with a combination of glee and fear. The glee comes from the possibility of conversion: When a group such as incels gets a lot of international coverage, the members promote it internally and tout it as a chance to expand their numbers.
And the media attention itself is also a meme: On the Braincels subreddit — one of the main remaining strongholds of incels on Reddit — posters are meming the media attention to their community as a variation on the “hacker known as 4chan” meme, which is meant to mock journalists who do not understand — but still fear and write about — 4chan. “EXCUSE ME MA’AM WE HAVE REASON TO BELIEVE YOUR SON IS PART OF AN ONLINE TERRORIST GROUP KNOWN AS ‘THE INCELS’” reads one sarcastic post.
That attention has also come with consequences. In November, Reddit came under increasing pressure to combat hate speech, so it banned the main incel subreddit from the site, for violating a new rule against “any content that encourages, glorifies, incites, or calls for violence or physical harm against an individual or a group of people.”