The media is determined to identify a new danger to society
Earlier this week, The Times rang in the New Year with a story titled “Massive rise in use of incel sites that call for women to be raped.” The Guardian and then The Independent quickly followed suit.
Each piece remained true to the formula: it begins with the news peg, in this case, an apparent “spike” in UK traffic to “hate-filled incel forums,” which has risen from 114,420 to 638,505 between March and November of last year according to the Centre for Countering Digital Hate. This is invariably followed by a brief portrait of the incel community composed of posts hand-selected to demonstrate the way users “lionise” a mass shooter. Next comes commentary from experts who — with varying degrees of expertise — provide soundbites to underscore the imminent danger posed by the incels, and a call-to-action for tech companies, law enforcement agencies, and government to do something, and for women to be very afraid.
The significance of the increase in monthly traffic is dubious. Such data can be calibrated and explained in nearly infinite ways; website traffic ebbs and flows like the weather, which is literally a factor in and of itself. The Times piece includes a specific jump in traffic following the Plymouth attack in August, which could quite plausibly be attributed to outrage viewers and terrorism researchers.
All three pieces use Jake Davison, the Plymouth shooter, to typify the incel community. The Guardian piece even places him in the headline, and explains that incels propagandise the attack for “recruitment” efforts — which is something I’ve never seen take place. In my piece about Davison, I expressed doubt that his involvement with the community was any motivation for the tragic attack. Since then, Tim Jacques, deputy senior national coordinator for UK counterterrorism policing has stated definitively that it was not. That statement received very little media coverage after the barrage of pieces claiming him as an “incel killer,” and only The Times included it in Monday’s piece.
Given all that press, some speculation about Davison should be expected on incel forums, as should some bad taste jokes. Ironic humour is part of incel culture, and the handful of posts highlighted repeatedly in these pieces fail to accurately represent much of the content on these sites. The majority of posts about Davison were mere gossip and conjecture, not unlike my Twitter timeline in following days.
The timing of these stories appears to coincide with an ongoing political push to include misogyny on the violent extremism agenda and to further restrict speech online. For example, Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate (a UK non-profit), told The Times:
But there is no evidence that participation in these forums or exposure to “incel ideology” leads to real-world violence. In fact, a new study forthcoming in the January issue of the Journal of Intelligence, Conflict, and Warfare (JICW), which surveyed 274 self-identified active incels, suggests that it does not.
“We found that ideology is only weakly correlated with radical attitudes,” says lead author Dr. Sophia Moskalenko. “This is consistent with research into other groups vulnerable to radicalisation, where fewer than 1 percent of those who harbour radical ideology ever act on it.”
Indeed, many incels are so isolated that they value forums like those in question as a rare source of community and friendship, and an outlet for frustrations they cannot express elsewhere. Criminalising participation, or preventing access through censorship will do little to address their underlying mental health issues or the broader societal factors that contribute to their distress.
If the media is so concerned about “recruitment” or the radicalising effect of these websites — any of them — maybe they should stop writing so many formulaic, apocryphal screeds about them in the first place. Where do they think all that traffic is coming from?