By Jake Jankovsky
The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect views of the Journal, the William H. Bowen School of Law, or UA Little Rock.
In response to a violent terrorist attack (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-43883052) in Toronto last April, the media has brought knowledge of inceldom into the mainstream. For the uninitiated, incel stands for “involuntary celibate”. It is a group of men who have formed online communities on the shared idea (http://haenfler.sites.grinnell.edu/subcultures-and-scenes/incels) that men, as a basic right, are owed sex by women, that feminism has disrupted this right by allowing women to be hypergamous, and this hypergamy and their own genetic inferiority are denying them sex. While the media has rightfully and strongly condemned incels as the hate group (https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/ideology/male-supremacy) they are, it has seemingly failed to bring sufficient light to and denounce the bulk of incels’, and other male supremacists’, activities—online harassment campaigns against women.
Organized incel communities originated on the message boards of 4chan (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2015/10/07/incels-4chan-and-the-beta-uprising-making-sense-of-one-of-the-internets-most-reviled-subcultures/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.98f2d75b2bb0) and wizchan (https://wiki.incels.info/w/Incel_Wiki#Incelosphere). Incels and male supremacists, whose loose collection of websites are known as the “manosphere”, share a core belief that women are lesser humans that only serve a valid purpose when they are providing offspring for, or sexual gratification to, men. However, the groups often hold themselves out to promote a more altruistic goal of men’s rights and seeking equal protection for men under the law (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/made-by-history/wp/2018/07/24/before-jordan-peterson-there-were-mens-rights-activists/?utm_term=.e7ae62774fe2). Incels are also well known for holding themselves out as a support group for lonely men (https://globalnews.ca/video/4171699/its-a-support-group-for-men-not-a-movement-incel-spokesperson) even though their websites keep getting shut down for promoting violence (https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/nov/08/reddit-incel-involuntary-celibate-men-ban) and advocating for raping young girls and women (https://babe.net/2018/05/30/incelocalypse-62690).
While the manoshpere is comprised of several disparate groups, one common thread among those groups is the unique language the manosphere uses to exclude others. Though this language shifts frequently, there are a few lasting terms to note:
“redpill” – accepting the truth that women gained control of society through feminism, and that through hypergamy women have effectively excluded lower value men from society and the genepool, or indoctrinating a man into the manosphere’s ideology.
“foid” – abbreviated form of “femoid”, which is a portmanteau of female and humanoid, a derogatory term for women implying they are not human or lesser humans.
“beta” – Based on the idea that the top 20% of men are alpha males (known as Chads) that attract 80% of women, betas are the men that are not in the 20%. Typically used to insult men who have normal interactions with women, implying that those men are trying to increase their sexual market value through virtual signaling to women.
Women have been facing online harassment for years (https://psmag.com/social-justice/women-arent-welcome-internet-72170). However, in 2014 a large online harassment campaign dubbed #GamerGate (https://www.vox.com/2014/9/6/6111065/gamergate-explained-everybody-fighting) began against Zoe Quinn, a female game developer, and soon grew to include Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist game critic, and many women (and a few men) who called attention to the harassment. 4chan and wizchan users developed a strategy (https://arstechnica.com/gaming/2014/09/new-chat-logs-show-how-4chan-users-pushed-gamergate-into-the-national-spotlight/) for harassing Quinn and covering their tracks under the guise of promoting ethical gaming journalism. Quinn, however, logged the chat of 4chan members, preserving a record of their activities, which are archived at https://puu.sh/boAEC/f072f259b6.txt.
In broad strokes, the #GamerGate campaign used a hashtag to reach a wide audience on Twitter, mobilized a portion of the audience under an altruistic motive that would lend them credibility, created sock puppet accounts to discredit its targets, and then proceeded to harass its targets while falling back into the credible space as a shield. This tactic has been used to target CNN (https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-anti-cnn-harassment-campaign-is-using-the-gamergate-playbook) and actors (https://www.thecut.com/2016/08/a-timeline-of-leslie-joness-horrific-online-abuse.html) and is seemingly poised repeat itself with #Comicsgate (https://www.thedailybeast.com/comicsgate-how-an-anti-diversity-harassment-campaign-in-comics-got-uglyand-profitable). Does this method seem familiar? Perhaps that’s because it mirrors the tactics members of the manosphere uses to add legitimacy to their groups.
While online harassment against women has always had the same sex obsessed basis that forms the incel ideology, Quinn’s chat logs show something more: use of the manosphere language, particularly references to “redpilling” gamers and repeatedly calling Quinn’s supporters “betas.” Another compelling correlation is the way manosphere language surfaced in online trends (https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?date=all&geo=US&q=%23GamerGate,foids,redpill,roastie) surrounding #GamerGate. In the months preceding #Gamergate, manosphere language took a sharp rise, and maintained itself throughout the incident, suggesting that leading up to and during #GamerGate this language was being used in public online spaces more frequently, requiring those outside the group to search for the terms.
Quinn was repeatedly hacked and doxxed (http://time.com/4927076/zoe-quinn-gamergate-doxxing-crash-override-excerpt/,) meaning that private information such as home address, or phone number was stolen and published online. Sarkeesian received death threats, one of which included her address (https://pbs.twimg.com/media/BwEefh5IcAAG_ob.jpg:large) and numerous tweets and DMs.
However, legal remedies for victims of these campaigns are sparse. Even with the severity of #GamerGate, the FBI ultimately decided not to bring charges (https://www.businessinsider.com/gamergate-fbi-file-2017-2). Typically, women don’t have much civil recourse against other users of online platforms anyway (https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/11/what-the-law-can-and-cant-do-about-online-harassment/382638/). However, a recent study shows that banning these communities from online spaces works (http://comp.social.gatech.edu/papers/cscw18-chand-hate.pdf). Yet, companies have little incentive to remove these elements because the controversy they create increases the ad revenue companies can receive (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/dec/01/tech-companies-online-harassment-courts-social-media). At the heart of this problem is 47 U.S.C. § 230, (https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/47/230) an outdated law, enacted in 1996, preventing targeted women from seeking recourse against online platforms. Section 230 bars social media companies from being held liable for the acts of their users through the safe harbor subsection, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” However, this law was intended to shield Internet Service Providers; in fact, in 1996, social media sites as we know them didn’t exist (https://www.wired.com/story/how-social-networks-set-the-limits-of-what-we-can-say-online/). The obsolescence of this law has become apparent in the realm of sex trafficking as well. In April, Congress tried to update this law through FOSTA-SESTA, an amendment to Section 230, allowing an exception for sex trafficking. This amendment misses the mark in many ways, however, the fact that many websites shut down their personals sections in response to FOSTA-SESTA shows that regulation of social media companies can be effective.
The harassment campaigns that male supremacists conduct against women will only stop when women can hold tech companies liable for the harassment proliferated on their platforms. One realistic legal remedy would be an amendment to Section 230 creating a narrowly tailored exception for sexual harassment.