Get Serious About Online Misogyny Before More Women Are Killed

Sexism has always been terrifying. The Toronto attack turned it into terrorism.
People pay their respects at a makeshift memorial on Toronto's Yonge Street on April 25, two days after the van attack that killed 10 people.
People pay their respects at a makeshift memorial on Toronto's Yonge Street on April 25, two days after the van attack that killed 10 people.
Carlo Allegri / Reuters

This week, a young man plowed a rented white van into a crowd of pedestrians, killing 10 and injuring another 13 in the name of a poisonous ideology. Eight women and two men died.

The attacker had been radicalized online, spending time in forums that served as an echo chamber for his increasingly violent thoughts. Before embarking on his rampage, he left a message publicly expressing allegiance to one of those groups, admiration for its spiritual leader, and hate for those who did not adhere to his ideology. Within hours of the mass murder making headlines, members of that same group were publicly rejoicing that innocent lives were lost and bemoaning that more people hadn’t died.

Alek Minassian wasn’t an Islamist terrorist radicalized by ISIS: He was a misogynist extremist, inspired by a subculture of woman-hating online groups. But from beginning to end, his modus operandi was the same as that of any terrorist group.

The group to which the Toronto terrorist belonged is an “incel” community of “involuntarily celibate” misogynists who rage against the women they believe owe them sex, and who advocate rape as a solution to their celibacy. It is part of what the Southern Poverty Law center calls the “online male supremacist ecosystem,” where men gather to denigrate and dehumanize women. That digital ecosystem includes “men’s rights activists” and “pickup artists” who overlap with each other and with the alt-right. The SPLC classifies them as hate groups. When you read the description of how Minassian was radicalized, the ideas his group aimed to spread, how he acted on them and how his fellow “incels” responded, there’s little doubt as to why.

Let’s examine, for a moment, the stark similarities between the kind of terrorist groups Westerners have been told to fear ― like ISIS and al Qaeda ― and the group to which Minassian belonged.

“The group to which the Toronto terrorist belonged is community of 'involuntarily celibate' misogynists who rage against the women they believe owe them sex, and who advocate rape as a solution to their celibacy.”

Begin with a central shared belief: a disregard for women as human beings with any rights or agency. Incels like Minassian idolize Elliot Rodger, whose murderous rampage in 2014 killed 6 people and injured 14 in Isla Vista, California. Rodger was an incel who left behind a 137-page manifesto in which he excoriated attractive women for not having sex with him. While many of his victims were men, he targeted the Delta Delta Delta sorority in an attempt to kill as many young women as possible. Incels see sex with attractive women as an entitlement and advocate punishing those who deny it to them. They quite literally beatify Rodger, calling him their patron saint.

ISIS feels the same way about women. They instituted sex slavery as both a reward and compensation for their fighters. The approximately 3,000 women and girls ― mostly Yazidis ― abducted by ISIS have been abused, raped and sold like chattel. Incels refer to women as “femoids,” a combination of “female” and “humanoid” that denotes subhuman status. In this worldview, women exist simply for men’s gratification and service. Both groups promote a virulent and toxic masculinity that grants women neither value nor agency.

Almost all hate groups use the internet to indoctrinate and recruit. While al Qaeda was one of the first terrorist groups to use the internet to expand its influence, ISIS has revolutionized modern terrorism with its use of social media. In 2016, when Twitter shut down 360,000 accounts for links to terrorist organizations that rely on the internet to radicalize, ISIS had already moved on to secure messaging apps like Kik, WhatsApp, Telegram and other mediums that offer end-to-end encryption.

The internet’s ubiquity and virality serve Islamic extremism’s purposes well. ISIS quickly discovered that instead of trying to radicalize disillusioned young men to travel to Syria to join up, it could much more easily use the internet to incite them to do violence in its name in the West.

“Minassian’s attack serves as inspiration to other group members who dream of enacting real-life violence themselves.”

On many far-right sites, 4chan, or incel forums, you’ll see the same incitement to violence associated with Islamist sites. In his final message, Minassian himself made reference to 4chan, an anonymous message board that incubates hate speech and misogyny online serves as a popular recruitment tool for white supremacists. Reddit shut down a popular incel forum last year after announcing a ban on content that calls for violence or physical harm.

Finally, Minassian’s attack, like Rodger’s, clearly serves as inspiration to other group members who dream of enacting real-life violence themselves. This, too, is a hallmark of the kinds of terrorism that Westerners have been conditioned to fear.

After the Islamist-inspired Westminster and Nice attacks, there were online celebrations from Islamic extremists eager to rejoice at the murderous mayhem. After the Toronto attack, messages left in incel forums reveal the same disturbing glee and outright celebration. “I have one celebratory beer for every victim that turns out to be a young woman between 18-35,” one incel wrote. “I hope this guy wrote a manifesto because he could be our next new saint,” another wrote.

Minassian’s behavior, and its aftermath, had all the hallmarks of terrorism. If he had been indoctrinated by Islamist extremists instead of by a virulently misogynistic incel group, his would have been considered an open-and-shut case. Instead, Toronto’s police chief, Mark Saunders, downplayed any links to terrorism. As a headline at Canadian parody news site The Beaverton put it, “Motives of man who clearly stated his motives unclear.”

“Gender-based violence, even when it doesn’t kill, constricts women’s lives.”

If there’s a common thread that runs through many mass murderers’ lives, it’s that these troubled individuals are particularly vulnerable to the pull of hate groups that act as a sounding board for their ugliest thoughts. Many of these men lack positive male role models and feel alienated, disillusioned and unable to connect with others. Others suffer from anxiety, depression and see themselves as victims deprived of the status and affection that should have rightfully been theirs.

Online, extremists prey on these vulnerabilities, insisting that all these woes must be blamed on immigrants, or women, or another religion. Whether it’s ISIS or incels, extremists use the internet to target aggrieved men, nurture their resentment into hate, and urge them to act on that hate.

Radicalized hate is hate is hate. The motives may be different and occasionally intersect, but the belief systems are similar, the online behavior comparable, and the deadly outcome almost always the same.

Terrorism turns innocent people into victims and leaves those who survive in fear. Gender-based violence, even when it doesn’t kill, constricts women’s lives, making their worlds smaller and their hopes dimmer. It also kills men, too.

The women who were killed in Toronto this week ― like all women who are disparaged in these forums by angry men who see them as less than human ― were human beings with inherent value, and ideas of what they wanted their lives to be. They should have been free to live them.

Toula Drimonis is a Montreal-based freelance writer, editor and columnist.

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