In May 2014, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger went on an hours-long rampage in Isla Vista, California that included stabbing his roommates, shooting three women outside a sorority house and opening fire on pedestrians. The violence shook the University of California, Santa Barbara community and served as a tragic milestone for incel violence, ultimately launching a cultural interrogation into how, and why, lonely young men choose to kill.
It’s still unclear exactly when Rodger started to take his craving for fatal violence seriously. But the arc of his radicalization was obvious online, where he posted deeply misogynistic, racist and self-hating rants on sites like Bodybuilding.com and PUAHate.com, detailing the anger around his celibacy and his eagerness to blame others for it. “I’m 22 years old and I’m still a virgin… It’s not fair. You girls have never been attracted to me,” he said in a YouTube manifesto. “I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me, but I will punish you all for it.”
Seven years have passed since Rodger killed seven people, including himself, and injured 14 more on his rampage, but the presence and legacy of incel violence only continues to grow online. Reddit, which has been fighting incel rhetoric and activities in its communities in recent years, has also remained one of its biggest hubs. In 2017, it shut down its biggest incel community in reaction to claims that it harbored violent ideology, including a petition that detailed how members of the subreddit referred to Rodgers as “Saint Elliot.”
But instead of quashing the movement, the banishment merely splintered it, giving way to pages like r/IncelExit, r/UglyUncensored and r/IncelsInAction. Some of these communities aim to transition people out of their incel beliefs, while others shed light on, and humorously mock, the abusive behavior of incels around the web. Regardless of their intent, all of them have made room for users to engage in debates and discussions around incel ideologies.
One of those users was 22-year-old Jake Davison of Plymouth, England. Like Rodger, he was obsessed with all facets of incel culture online. Last week, Davison picked up a shotgun and killed five people, including his mother, then turned the gun on himself. It was the deadliest mass shooting in England in over a decade
In the days since, Reddit communities and their moderators have rushed to dig into Davison’s post history, wondering whether they unintentionally fueled Davison’s aggression. They found that he particularly enjoyed posting on Reddit about the injustice of his life, including the oppressiveness of virginity, and the perceived sins of women around him.
Reddit relies on volunteers to moderate each of its forums, including the incel-related subreddits — sometimes sifting through hundreds of posts each day, making sure people stay on topic and obey rules on conduct, all without compensation. The site’s administrators only come into play to handle large conflicts, such as moderator infighting and long-term bans. Now, many are left wondering whether people like Davison will always slip through the cracks, no matter the trail of disturbing posts they leave as evidence in hindsight. Not only are there obvious spaces for incels to congregate, but it’s become clear that volunteer moderators, often without any formal training, are ill-equipped to control a world built upon the promise of free speech.
One moderator from r/Virgin, who asked to remain anonymous because of the threat of harassment, confirms that the volunteer team reviews reports of post violations, adding that “very rarely, if at all, do those violations involve violence.” The r/Virgin page is intended for helpful conversations around virginity, with input from both virgins and non-virgins, but it’s often targeted by people who want to spread incel ideals about sexuality, desire and consent. Because of this, the moderator adds that the process involves “many gray areas,” despite their best intentions.
“We take incel posts very seriously, and have made it clear that they aren’t welcome in our sub. We do our best to remove such posts and comments, as well as the people making them,” they write. “However, some posts and comments are never reported, and although we do our best to randomly check threads for unacceptable comments, we’re human and some get missed.”
The gray area gets more complicated in subreddits where incels are tolerated, such as r/IncelTear, a sub that highlights examples of incel logic from around the internet and world. A mod tells me that they believe their sub helps toxic incels “see how ridiculous their logic is” and ultimately encourages their disengagement from the incel community. At the same time, they wonder why Reddit didn’t take harsher measures against Davison, who appeared to be crossing the threshold from ideation to action when he harassed a user via DMs.
“As soon as an individual crosses the line from online rhetoric to real-life actions, or even just online harassment of individuals, they deserve to be punished for causing tangible harm. Davison harassed a 16-year-old girl about a week before he committed the shooting. The Reddit admins could have suspended his accounts and reported him to the U.K. authorities,” the moderator writes.
(A Reddit spokesman confirmed that the site suspended Davison’s account on August 11th, but didn’t reply by press time to questions regarding pending changes to moderation and administrative rules, or whether Davison should have been reported to law enforcement under existing protocols.)
Elsewhere, the backlash against Davison has led to communities closing down in full. The r/UglyUncensored community, in which Davison and others spoke openly about how unattractive they feel and the misery that comes with it, shuttered over the weekend after the news of Davison and his post history broke. Caronte, a former user and recent mod who identifies as an incel, says they were initiating a freeze of the subreddit on Friday “out of respect to the victims.” As of yesterday, the community was listed as “banned” by Reddit.
Caronte, however, doesn’t believe Reddit can be blamed for inciting violence, despite the wealth of incel voices on the platform. Moreover, he adds that as more and more subreddits become guarded toward users who identify as incels, an exodus is both likely and imminent, with few safe spaces for people to vent. “There aren’t many places for us. Ruqqus is no longer safe, as they recently banned the +Incels guild. Even though they just unbanned it, we just can’t trust them,” Caronte tells me. “For now, I guess we’re going to hang out on a server I have. Some of them will go to Incels.is or another kind of alternative incel forum. And some of them will just have nowhere to go.”
The benefits and consequences of censoring incel communities remains in dispute, but Brian Hughes, co-director of American University’s Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab (PERIL), suggests that online communities are volatile because they select for the most nihilistic, and negative, members of the subculture. Men who overcome their “incel shortcomings” tend to abandon online communities rather than stick around to help, Hughes notes. Conversely, the most toxic leaders often drive more moderate, questioning voices away.
“Some people do move to more obscure spaces when boards like r/Incel get shut down, but most research indicates that this is better overall for public discourse and safety,” Hughes explains. “Fewer new users discover those spaces, and while the toxicity may be worse in the more obscure spaces, it’s in such smaller doses that the overall volume of toxicity is reduced. Law enforcement and researchers are able to discover and gain access to these smaller, more extreme spaces, so it’s actually easier to monitor them for major red flags.”
And those red flags are growing in the aftermath of Davison’s killings, with reports that angry incels are now flooding into spaces like r/IncelTear to attack perceived enemies of the movement. It’s a culture war that’s likely to rage on. One anonymous moderator from r/IncelsInAction says that they’ve noticed “sock-puppet incel” accounts are mobilizing from other online spaces and targeting anti-incel communities. “Reddit is social media, and social media thrives on the negative emotions of combative users. Incels are such a wedge issue, with incels going to war with ‘normies’ to prove that their way of thinking is correct, and it drives traffic,” they write.
For now, the incel posters march on, finding new crevices to hide in as prying eyes look for evidence of violence and a distraught public cries for a solution. We will never know whether Davison could have been diverted from this rhetoric, and ultimately his fatal act. But a months-old post he wrote in r/Virgin suggests a glimpse of self-awareness that eventually died out: “i know i shouldn’t pay attention to it and that it doesn’t 100 percent reflect real life but when you are socially isolated no car and the computer is the only form of entertainment you have you just find yourself reading up about it all i wish i never came across all this BS it just toxic negative bullshit.”