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Incels and the rise of sex trolling

Trolls have been a feature of online communities ever since online communities have existed. It was historically thought that the anonymous nature of the early internet helped to facilitate people whose sole intention was to upset others.

One interesting Brazilian project attempted to lift this veil of anonymity by publicizing trolling behavior on giant billboards in the troll's neighborhood (with the victim's names blurred out obviously). The hope was that by naming and shaming the troll, it might discourage their behavior. It's a nice thought, although research from the University of Zurich shows that even as the web has become increasingly identifiable and public, trolling behavior has not declined.

A more recent manifestation of internet trolls is so-called incels, who define themselves as unable to find a romantic or sexual partner, despite wanting one.

Discussions in incel communities often revolve around misanthropy, misogyny, and self-pity, and they have been strongly linked to online male supremacist groups. Indeed, around 2018 they began being thought of as a terrorist group, with an attack in Toronto in February 2020 the first instance of incel-related violence that was prosecuted as an act of terrorism.

Differences between trolls and incels

It’s an emergence that a new paper from the Queensland University of Technology suggests warrants more attention. The paper references a popular meme among the incel community, called "I sexually identify as an attack helicopter," which is used to ridicule the transgender community. The researchers analyzed data collected from the Australian Sex Survey from 2016 and highlight how incels are fundamentally different, and more dangerous than trolls have been in the past.

They suggest that traditionally, trolls were motivated by the desire for attention and to alleviate boredom. As such, while they were undoubtedly annoying, they were often quite harmless. Incels are different, however, and often feel aggrieved by what they view as the injustices of modern society, and are driven by envy and jealousy.

Whereas trolls see the web as a platform for their amusement, incels see it as a weapon they can use to fight back against these injustices.

Incels are men who are quite happy taking an aggressive approach towards gender issues, with phrases such as “attack helicopter” used to attack or parody gender classifications. The researchers believe that while the internet is generally speaking a force for good, it’s nonetheless important to understand its use by groups to conduct aggressive and anti-social behaviors, especially given the broader context of online cyber-aggression and abuse.

No one knows you’re a dog

Labeling of gender and sex has been an integral part of the internet from the very earliest chat rooms all the way through to the social networks of today. An early cartoon famously remarked that “on the internet, no one knows you’re a dog,” and the relative freedom and anonymity of the web has been a key part of its allure. 

In recent years, policymakers and industry figures alike have begun to steadily appreciate the myriad of non-binary titles that are in use in certain parts of modern Western society, such as “bigender” and “nonbinary.” The researchers found that not all online communities are so inclusive and welcoming of gender diversity, with incels coming to typify this lack of tolerance.

Unfortunately, very little is known about incel communities, especially their demographic characteristics. Nonetheless, the researchers believe that insight can be gleaned from their social media posts by analyzing their linguistic content. They discovered that much of the content in these communities focused on their perceived ugliness and a generally low sense of social worth. It’s also common for posts to advocate physical or sexual violence, along with homophobia, racism, and anti-feminism.

The researchers hope that by better understanding the motivation and drivers of individuals to join such communities, it will be increasingly possible to develop interventions so that the harm caused by incel groups doesn’t come to fruition.

The survey, which included a question that allowed respondents to identify with one of up to 33 different gender options, provided a broad basis from which the researchers were able to deep dive into the experiences of 20 individuals. Respondents were also given a free text area within which they could self-report an alternative gender title, or alternatively leave an additional comment.

The results revealed a number of participants who described their gender as an “attack helicopter,” which allowed the researchers to hone in on them specifically.

This provided the researchers with the possibility to understand not only the demographic characteristics of those who identify as incels but also to understand their key traits and behaviors. Such is the novel nature of the field, it’s the first study to truly explore this burgeoning and dangerous sub-community, but if trolling and more serious gender-based violence is to be reduced, it will hopefully act as the first of many as we attempt to gain a greater understanding of the non-binary gender debate.

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