At what point does advocating for men’s mental health transform into advocating for misogyny? This was a question my Instagram algorithm tried to reveal the answer to as I doomscrolled while procrastinating thinking of an idea for an article for this week. Men’s mental health is an issue society has become increasingly aware of in recent years. Although it is not nearly a fully destigmatized issue among men themselves, there is still progress being made in breaking down the barriers that prevent them from seeking the help they need in times of crisis. Yet, the growing influence of the internet in people’s daily lives has enabled this issue to be co-opted by people taking advantage of young, impressionable and mentally unwell men. This process, commonly known as the “alt-right pipeline,” has led to the creation of one of the newest and most dangerous communities of men, with effects both on the internet and American culture: the brand-new American incel.
Officially known as involuntary celibates, this community has gained recent notoriety with some of their views broadcasted by famous internet figures, with the most easily recognized being Alex Jones, Ben Shapiro and alleged rapist and human trafficker Andrew Tate. The hallmarks of incel ideology are white supremacy, self-hatred and violent misogyny. Now, all this would be less damaging if it was solely confined to sad people complaining on the internet, but this group has been growing and becoming much more active recently.
There have been many terrorist actions related to incel ideologies over the last decade, including Elliot Rodger, who killed six in 2014 while trying to instigate a “war on women” for not having sex with him. Alek Minassian and Christopher Harper-Mercer were inspired by similar ideologies, killing 10 and nine people respectively in later years. The Anti-Defamation League describes incels as the most violent subsect of the “manosphere,” the broader misogynistic communities online, and their actions have only continued in recent years. This growth comes in the context of a great rise of the alt-right enabled by the populist politics of Republican leaders like Donald Trump. This isn’t just a bunch of internet losers lamenting their virginity, and ignoring it as some weird subculture issue is going to let it continue to fester and grow. It is important to call it what it is and deal with it as such: a violent hate group.
The underlying psychology of the alt-right pipeline is undoubtedly based on insecurity and toxic masculinity. The range of reasons from economic, physical and social insecurities all allow for the subtle infiltration of ideas from the alt-right pipeline. In incel circles, a popular example of this is how they complain about the sexual revolution when someone feels insecure or ashamed of their own lack of sex. At the end of the day, that’s the key to all this — the comforting nature of the message underneath all the inflammatory words. They are basically saying “it’s not your fault” to a male population that doesn’t know how to deal with their problems and is failing to take responsibility for their own lives. It’s a nice answer, but not a real one, that some bald sexist like Andrew Tate is going to show you the way to being rich, successful and surrounded by beautiful women if only you’re willing to go back to being a “real man.”
The internet is the central avenue through which relatively normal men are made into violent incels because of two main factors: algorithms and anonymity. YouTube is a great example of the first point, as there are specific choices the platform made in the 2010s that promoted watch time while having the unintended side effect of giving right-wing extremist content a boost. According to some YouTube employees, executives were obsessed with increasing watch time (aka revenue), but rarely considered the effect this had on extreme political content. To be clear, more than 70% of all time people spend on YouTube is based on algorithmic recommendations; this is pretty important on the website with the second highest traffic worldwide and used by 94% of 18 to 24-year-olds. This problem also exists on other algorithmic sites, like TikTok, which can complete the process at incredible speeds due to the nature of short-form content.
Anonymity is the main problem on other types of forum-based websites, as this allows users to feel confident in sharing their hateful thoughts that would usually get them punched in the face in the real world. Websites like 4chan are the final destination for incels in development, wherein they can now contribute their own recently developed ideas and plans for violence in unregulated spaces made to support them. It is where their distorted views of reality are validated and expanded on through interpersonal socialization in what is probably the closest thing to a real community that most incels have ever felt in their life. Although this occurs on a much smaller scale, there is where the most dangerous individuals exist and it deserves its own attention as well.
This issue is very real and potent in society today, worthy of a national discussion on mental health and the internet’s role in radicalization. The solutions to such a problem are varied and require change on a societal level (some of which I will talk about in-depth next week), but before that, it’s important to recognize the disease spreading before us.