Ten years ago, the word incel was a term known primarily within niche online gaming and nerd communities. Today, the term has become better known for its association with young men who express rage at being unable to have sex and high-profile mass murders that target women. Involuntary celibates, better known as incels, ascribe to a particularly nihilistic form of male supremacism that blames bad genetics, feminism, and society for denying them sex with women. Until recently, incel violence has largely been gawked at because of the absurdity of its ideology or dismissed as being a product of mental illness. Some practitioners and academics describe incel violence as terrorism and point to emergent trends in terrorist violence having a hate-based crime dimension. Others feel that the word, terrorism, is being inappropriately applied because incels are not a politically motivated group, and adopting anti-terrorism strategies against an ideology may cause security agencies to see “risk” everywhere. While the label may be debated, what is known is that incels are part of a larger network linked to violent events that have seldom been investigated in quantitative studies.
Incels represent one corner of a male supremacist extremist network known as the manosphere. The manosphere ecosystem is dispersed across websites, social media and news platforms, blogs, vlogs, and message boards. It can seem ambiguous because it is not a centrally located place or group but rather a constellation of points online that form and die out rapidly. Nonetheless, it is a very real dwelling for some individuals seeking support and refuge from a society they perceive as stacked against them. This paper and its findings hope to provide new insight into the manosphere by examining its structure and filling a gap in quantitative research on the network. This thesis builds on existing feminist and linguistic research by using a mixed methods design with digital ethnography and social network analysis (SNA) to observe the broader manosphere structure as it exists on Reddit.
The major findings from this research indicate that the informal social barriers of the network are disappearing, and that platform algorithms are helping network resilience. Current literature on the manosphere separates its subgroups into four major ideological domains: the men’s rights movement, pick up artists, men going their own way, and incels. Each domain has a unique social identity, lingo, and semiotics, and each domain falls along a spectrum of moderate to extreme ideologies and tactics. Despite domain differences, this research develops an anti-feminist framework that identifies shared beliefs that orient members of all domains to view women and feminism as the root cause for personal and societal crises. This viewpoint is supported by the social network analysis used in this thesis, which suggests that the informal social barriers of the network are fading. In other words, both moderate and extreme subgroups appear to be congregating on shared spaces within the Reddit platform. With online spaces becoming less “incel” or “pick up artist” specific, it makes developing anti-terrorism strategies for incel groups more challenging because they do not have the exclusive spaces they once did. The causes for a unifying manosphere may be coming from outside influences from larger hate-based networks that share in anti-feminism, but it also may be coming from within Reddit.
While a platform like Reddit, which advertises itself as “The frontpage of the internet,” may seem like a free space of minimal oversight where user generated content gets equal visibility, the reality is much different. Reddit is a user-generated social news aggregate platform made up of more than two million discussion boards called, subreddits. Subreddits are virtual communities that allow members to post, comment, and vote on content, but the way members become acquainted with these spaces is not as simple. Platform algorithms act as gatekeepers of information by suggesting related content and shielding unrelated content to users. In this case, it means that users who search for something related to one of the many cultural touchpoints in the manosphere, some of which are not explicitly misogynist, may find their suggested subreddits influenced by these algorithms. The social network analysis of the manosphere used in this project suggests that Reddit platform algorithms performed exactly as they were designed to do: namely, help people in the network find each other and keep their attention. Reddit may employ these algorithms to grow and sustain the platform writ large, but the unintended consequences these have had on the manosphere have helped its resilience.
The manosphere is a growing network that deserves attention from the homeland security community as an emerging threat, which if unchecked, may continue to escalate. An innovative homeland security strategy aimed at social media algorithms and the companies that benefit from the growth of extremist groups on their platforms may be required, rather than specific individuals or groups.
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