Despite crackdown on incels, their discussion forums are still online

WATCH: Social media companies are still focused on ISIS as opposed to incels, terrorism researcher Prof. Amarnath Amarasingam says.

On one incel website, the Toronto van attack suspect is called “our hero,” while the gunman who killed 14 women at a Montreal engineering school is a “prophet for the incel cause.”

“There’s only one path to acknowledgement as an incel and it happens to be violence,” a user wrote on a different online forum.

“In order for your ideology to get across, violence is inevitably required,” another wrote.

Internet sites for incels, or involuntary celibates, are a swamp of self-pity, conspiracy theory and outright justification of violence.

But despite growing recognition that attacks by incels are a form of domestic terrorism, online discussion forums that cater to the misogynist subculture continue to operate openly.

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A Global News investigation has found that one of the two main forums used by incels is hosted in Russia, while the second is the reincarnation of a males-only U.S. website suspended in 2018 for spreading hate and violence.

The Moscow-based site did not respond to a request for comment.

The administrator of the other, where the 1989 École Polytechnique mass killer is revered as “the greatest of our heroes,” said posts violating U.S. law would be removed and the users banned.

“There are several forums that are quite important for a lot of these individuals, and they range in terms of how extremist the content gets,” said Prof. Amarnath Amarasingam.

He said some incel forums should be more closely monitored and self-policed by their owners, but removing them from the internet would not be easy.

“Generally speaking, I think shutting the whole thing down is going to be next to impossible,” said the Queen’s University professor, who recently interviewed the administrator of a popular incel forum.

During the 2019 federal election campaign, the Liberals promised regulations requiring social media companies to remove content linked to radicalization and incitement within 24 hours or face “significant financial penalties.”

“We believe that when social media platforms are used to spread these harmful views, the platforms themselves must also be held accountable,” the party platform book reads.

But eight months later, it is not difficult to find violent extremist content on internet forums serving incels — aggrieved men who believe they are victims of society because they cannot attract sexual partners.

On the primary incel websites, violence is a recurring theme, as is the glorification of those who have conducted deadly attacks in Canada and the United States.

“Shooting others is the only way your plight can be heard,” a user wrote on one of the forums. “You need to be drastic to get anywhere as an ugly male in this society.”

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“I think these platforms are still operating because they are still largely considered outside of the realm of terrorism,” said Prof. Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center.

He said incel posts tended to be dismissed as “the immature musings of young men,” and singling out what constitutes terrorist content and balancing its removal with free speech protections takes time, he said.

“There is always a lag effect to taking down these platforms, and unfortunately, social media companies are typically slow to recognize the threat, and as such, slow to act,” said Clarke.

“The key is identifying speech that incites or is intended to incite violence, which crosses the line.”

Amarasingam said social media companies were preoccupied with ISIS and content like beheading videos and hadn’t sufficiently branched out to tackle right-wing extremists and more fringe groups like incels.

“That conversation still needs to happen, I think, because a lot of the mechanisms of takedown and response by the social media platforms have been entirely formulated around the Islamic State threat, and it hasn’t really expanded beyond that,” he said.

Although a relatively new phenomenon, incel-related attacks have killed almost 50 in recent years.

The suspect arrested for the 2018 Toronto van attack that killed 10 and injured 16 told police he had been active on incel discussion forums on 4chan and Reddit.

The 2019 stabbing of a woman in a Sudbury, Ont., parking lot was also conducted by a self-described incel, and on May 19, a 17-year-old was charged with terrorism over a Feb. 24 attack at a Toronto massage parlour.

Police have alleged the youth, who killed one woman and injured another, was inspired by incel ideology.

Reddit banned incel discussion groups in November 2017. The incels.me website appeared shortly after but was suspended in October 2018.

“A considerable proportion of the discourse classifies as hate speech, with the forum brimming with misogynist, anti-feminist and homophobic utterances,” according to an academic study of incels.me.

But new online forums have since emerged to serve incels; one even operates a private Twitter account.

Incel forums reacted to the terrorism charges in the Toronto massage parlour case by portraying themselves as victims of a conspiracy to demonize them.

“Get ready to be persecuted,” one wrote.

Another said women who had rejected the Toronto attacker should be jailed.

“At least we’ll be feared,” another wrote.

One user wrote that the woman stabbed during the spa attack in Toronto “deserved it … I’d have broken her head.”

The Toronto Police Service said it was “aware of various online posts that include information about incel violence.”

“Each of these posts is considered on a case-by-case basis as our investigators work to determine whether the content is extremism, hate speech or a legitimate threat of violence,” said Meaghan Gray, a Toronto police spokesperson.

The Canadian government has recently categorized incels as a form of ideologically motivated violent extremism and helped fund a guide to help front-line workers confront incel radicalization.

The RCMP is also in the process of updating its Terrorism and Violent Extremism Awareness Guide, and a spokesperson for the police force said incels would “very likely” be included.

“The internet and social media can play an important role in the radicalization to violence process,” said Public Safety Minister Bill Blair’s spokesperson, Mary-Liz Power.

Asked what the government had done about its election promise to penalize social media companies over violent extremist content, Power said Blair and Justice Minister David Lametti were working on it.

“This remains an important priority shared between our minister and Minister Lametti, and work is ongoing,” she said.

Ashley Mattheis, who has been studying incels, said taking down websites might be a temporary fix, but new platforms would re-emerge to replace them.

The volume of incel content on the internet is also so vast that it was hard to control, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researcher said.

“So I think there needs to be more of a focus on moving upstream and looking at what causes people to engage in this and how do we talk to people about that,” Mattheis said.

Terrorism researcher Jacob Ware said “de-platforming” extremists was a key topic in counter-terrorism debates, with some supporting it while others argued it would not help.

“The forums will either pop right back up or the most extreme members will simply migrate elsewhere, likely with intensified grievances against the government,” Ware said.

Removing incel forums makes it harder for vulnerable youths to find such platforms, he said.

“But the true metric of counter-terrorism and counter-extremism success won’t be how many forums we shut down; it will be how many young minds we prevent from seeking out extremism in the first place,” Ware said.

“We need to be cleverer, bolder and think more long-term, working to counter the extremist narrative and provide positive outlets or mental health resources for young people turning to online forums to fulfil their need for belonging.”

Stewart.Bell@globalnews.ca

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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