Incels in Australia: the ideology, the threat and a way forward
11 Aug 2023|

Misogynist ideology, beyond individual criminal behaviour, has fuelled violence against women worldwide. Predominantly English-language, open-source data suggests that these attacks may have led to or been associated with 58 deaths—63 deaths if attacker suicides are included. A further 82 people have been injured.

A new ASPI report, Incels in Australia: the ideology, the threat and a way forward, released today, explores the phenomenon of ‘incels’ (a portmanteau of ‘involuntary’ and ‘celibate’) and the misogynistic ideology that underpins this global community of men that has become a thriving internet subculture. It examines how online spaces, from popular social media sites to dedicated incel forums, provide a platform for expanding misogynistic views and gender-based violent extremism.

In Australia, despite the existence of hate speech towards women, authorities have not identified any overt acts of violence driven by a specific misogynistic ideology as opposed to domestic violence that had misogyny at its core. There is evidence, however, that misogynist hate speech, often driven by a view that equality for women and diverse groups means inequality and disadvantage for men, is intensifying in Australia.

In February 2021, the director-general of the Australia Security Intelligence Organisation noted:

We are seeing a growing number of individuals and groups that don’t fit on the left–right spectrum at all; instead, they’re motivated by a fear of societal collapse or a specific social or economic grievance or conspiracy. For example, the violent misogynists who adhere to the involuntary celibate or ‘incel’ ideology fit into this category.

The director-general concluded that new language was needed for these issue-motivated groups and that ASIO would adopt the term ‘ideologically motivated violent extremism’, including for incel groups, and others motivated by nationalist, racist or anti-authority ideology.

‘Incel’ describes a person struggling to establish romantic and/or sexual relationships. Beyond a label of personal identity, the term also refers to a particular ideology and an online subculture, movement or community. Incels are a subgroup of a wider collection of online and offline communities that share overlapping misogynistic and male supremacist ideologies—otherwise referred to as the ‘manosphere’.

The term ‘invcel’—later shortened to ‘incel’—was coined in 1997 by a (female) Canadian university student who developed an inclusive online forum for individuals struggling with romantic and sexual inactivity. By the 2000s, incels began to inhabit spin-off forums like LoveShy and IncelSupport. With a relatively relaxed content-moderation policy, these forums began to house ‘the more extreme elements’ of the growing movement. Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, the community became intertwined with similar online subcultures, including alternate manosphere groups hosted by websites like 4chan and Reddit.

As well as growing in toxicity, the movement has gained a substantial following. The first major incel subreddit group, ‘r/Incels’, grew from 11 members in 2014 to 42,000 before being shut down in November 2017 for housing content advocating rape and murder. ‘r/braincels’, the replacement subreddit, quickly amassed over 50,000 members before being quarantined and then banned in September 2019. There has also been a significant migration of men from other manosphere groups to the incel movement of around 8% per year since 2015.

It’s important to note that not all incels hold violent beliefs and not all misogynists are incels. To denote the difference, the term ‘misogynist incel’, or MI, describes incels who dehumanise women, glorify violence and adhere to a male supremacist ideology. As a result of this complexity, policy and implementation responsibility for dealing with each phenomenon is dispersed, so it’s useful to clarify lines of responsibility.

Misogyny is a threat to social cohesion but, for the most part, it is a societal issue and not a security matter. Domestic violence is an abhorrent crime but remains a law enforcement responsibility. Where violence against women involves an ideology, in this case, an MI ideology, it becomes a potential national security matter.

Determining how many individuals subscribe to the MI ideology globally is difficult. However, the online presence on popular incel forums provides an indication., created hours after r/Incels was shut down, is the largest incel-specific forum and, as of June 2023, had over 21,000 members and more than 450,000 threads consisting of more than 10 million posts. One study indicated that between October and December 2018, amassed 1.754 million visitors globally. Within the same two months, alternative incel websites, and also experienced significant online traffic, housing 329,878, 3.124 million and 424,170 visitors, respectively. Another study found that Australians visited an unnamed incel forum 42,391 times between April and June 2022, accounting for 1.8% of the website’s traffic.

The online nature of the MI movement facilitates the transnational nature of the threat. Although studies have shown that MI violence has thus far only been reported as occurring in the US, Canada and the UK, there’s growing concern about the spread of MI ideology throughout Europe, Australia, and Asia, with studies demonstrating that incels exist across almost every continent.

Evidence suggests that between 2009 and 2022 at least 15 attacks in Western countries, including the US, Canada and the UK, potentially had MI ideology as a motivating factor. Apart from those in which targets were killed or injured, at least five interrupted plots have been linked to the MI movement across the US and Europe. This data doesn’t include violence perpetrated by male supremacists or misogynists outside the MI community.

This history of violent MI attacks demonstrates that they are motivated by a particular ideology advocating violence against women and wider society. The dissemination of manifestos by MI perpetrators of mass violence and their arguments urging other MIs to instigate a ‘beta uprising’ certainly constitute what ASIO refers to as ideologically motivated violent extremism—the ‘support for violence … in response to specific political or social grievances’.

The ASPI report makes six recommendations designed to reduce and, where possible, remove the risk of occurrences of incel and similar violence in Australia. The recommendations include greater awareness raising and policy changes designating incel violence as an ideological form of issue-motivated extremism. That would provide certainty that incels could formally fall within ASIO’s remit—in addition to law enforcement agencies—and would encourage tailored education programs focused on engaging young males at risk from indoctrination in this extreme subculture, along with their parents.