Tackling the Incel threat: A Twin Pillars Approach Needed

May 23, 2022
Olivia Russo  —  CEP Research Intern

Tackling the war on terror led to the development of strict binary categories to better organize counter-extremism and counterterrorism activities and differentiate what is radical versus what is not, what is threatening versus what is not, and critically, what is criminal behavior and what is mental illness. But applying such categories becomes challenging when groups and individuals do not fit neatly into one of the binaries. For example, the majority of the Incel community does not pose a direct threat to the safety of others. Visible is mostly the tip of the iceberg when an Incel acts violently and law enforcement action is required. Less visible is the majority of the Incel community beneath the surface. This is the space in which mental health professionals cooperating with government authorities can do important work.

The government of Canada is funding multiple projects which aim to improve research capacity on Incels and other national security threats. That research aims to deliver a systematic study of Incels in order to raise awareness and understanding of the group’s online activity, critical to developing efficient intervention practices aimed at individuals in the process of radicalization. This project, however, has become more challenging as some social media platforms’ moderation policies have pushed Incels into hard-to-reach corners of the Internet.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), which is leading the effort to monitor the Internet and prevent extremist attacks, was very careful when asked by this author about their work to identify Incels before they present a violent threat. Freedom of speech is an “important value” in Canada and thus radical thinking is “not illegal,” a spokesperson insisted, adding, the RCMP does “not investigate movements or ideologies” but instead focuses on investigating only criminal activity which “threatens the safety and security of Canadians.”

These responses reflect the dilemma law enforcement faces: When does freedom to espouse extremist ideas collide with the public’s right to safety. The government of Canada’s Department of Public Safety has defined radicalization leading to violence as the process by which individuals and groups adopt an ideology and/or a belief system that justifies the use of violence in order to advance their cause. That transition towards violence was reflected by self-proclaimed Incel and Toronto van-attacker, Alek Minassian. In an interview with the Toronto police, Minassian explained that he had started to “feel radicalized” after hearing about Incel-Saint Elliot Rodger’s lethal attacks in California in May of 2014. He said he had felt it was time to “take action” instead of sitting on the sidelines and “festering in my own sadness.” This interregnum between thought and action is where experts hope to intervene.

Canadian legal and health authorities have vowed since the Minassian attacks to monitor and act before this shift occurs. According to Public Safety Canada, early prevention tactics will include: raising awareness about radicalization leading to violence, improving critical thinking skills and digital literacy, supporting narratives that challenge violent extremism and promote positive social engagement, supporting outlets for respectful dialogue, supporting the development of curricula and training for teachers, and providing the appropriate tools for families, friends, and professionals to intervene with those at risk.

The overwhelming majority of Incels suffer from mental illness, which leads many healthcare professionals to assume that they generally pose a greater threat to their own safety than to society. Incel activity which occurs on public online spaces is often non-threatening. Reddit forums such as r/ForeverAlone30+ continue to be used as online meeting spaces for individuals facing challenges in their dating lives. This activity on its own is not alarming as it points to a desire to improve one’s circumstances rather than threatening violence. This raises the question whether removing such Incel forums would on balance benefit or harm societal security overall. I believe those Incels prevented the emotional outlet of public forums and pushed into dark Internet echo chambers have a greater chance of becoming radicalized. In the United States, a woman-led Incel support group proved that outreach to Incels should start with improving men’s access to mental health treatment. The Incel community offers unique insights into the mental health struggles of men in our society today and the lack of support that they receive.

As Aja Romano at Vox news observed, the Incel community is riddled with depression, a “nihilistic communal celebration of low self-esteem,” and a resistance to getting treatment for mental illness. This nihilism is reflected in posts on r/ForeverAlone30+ where one user wrote “my existence has always sucked, but maybe being this way will make death easier to cope with once it’s time to go.” This sadness can turn to anger which, as outlined in a previous blog, can fuel future attacks.

Effective intervention strategies must include a more holistic program that incorporates the support of non-governmental health organizations, as well as a focus on law enforcement. This twin pillars approach appears to be what government of Canada is aiming to intervene in the process of radicalization to violence.

Such a comprehensive approach offers the best hope for effectively tackling the threat posed by the Incel movement. Providing government commitment to psychological care and funding stays strong over time, the journey to extremism and violence can be permanently interrupted for many Canadians who currently identify with the Incel movement.

Daily Dose

Extremists: Their Words. Their Actions.

Fact:

On June 24, 2017, Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP) launched back-to-back explosions at a market in Kurram Agency of Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in northwest Pakistan. The attack killed 67 people who were shopping in preparation for a religious holiday and wounded 200 others. 

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