Masculinity, ambiguity and hate-speech: Mapping incel subculture on Reddit

A sub-project within the /ourguy/ project posed by Sal Hagen

DMI Winter School 2020

Team Members

Cecilie Astrupgaard, Partner in Analyse og Tal F.M.B.A

Christoffer Bagger, PhD -fellow in Digital Media Studies and Organisational Communication

Signe Sophus Lai, PhD -fellow in Communication and Internet Culture

Sofie Thorsen, PhD -fellow in Digital Sociology and Urban Planning


Summary of Key Findings

Through our investigation of Incels on Reddit, we have found the following 8 characteristic of the culture:

  1. A SUBCULTURE OF HATE: On Reddit, negotiation of what public figures (historic and cultural) count as heroes and antagonists for the Incel community is a critical part of constructing and demarcating a subculture, by defining who is “in” and who is “out”. In this process, agreeing who to hate (i.e. the ‘sex-havers’) is just as important a point of identification, as agreeing who to idolize.

  2. IDOLS OF VIOLENCE: Using Natural Language Processing tools to identify named entities in text, we found that the public figures most often mentioned by incels as heroes and ‘our guy’ are historical male figures known for perpetuating physical or sexual violence, including Elliot Rodger, Christopher Harber-Mercer, Seung-Hui Cho, Dylan Kiebold, George Sodini, Alek Minassian, Dahmer, Ted Bundy, Adolf Hitler, Napoleon, Micharl Jackson. The main non-historical figure mentioned as a hero in the incel-comunity is Joker (both from the 2008 and 2019 movie).

  3. MASCULINITY AT STAKE: Even though the incel community is defined by the shared experience of being involuntarily unable to get sex from women, only 15% of posts seem to actually mention or discuss females (‘stacys’ or ‘beckys’). In contrast, 95% of posts mention the male figure of ‘chads’ (guys hated by the incels for being successful in attracting female partners); signifying that the culture is more focused on negotiating masculinity and male figures, than females.

  4. ‘CHADS’ AS GOOD LOOKS & MONEY: Most frequently mentioned ‘chads’ are popcultural icons like Brad Pitt, Jason Mamoa, Ryan Goslong, Adam Driver, Justin Bieber, Chris Hemsworth, Christiano Ronaldo, Chris Brown, and Zac Efron. They are mainly considered ‘chads’ as a result of masculinity in appearance. Only a few figures are considered ‘chads’ for other reasons; mainly for being rich (with Donald Trump and Bill Gates as prominent examples). For incels, masculinity (considered as the ability to attract female sex partners) thus come from looks or economic power.

  5. AMBIGUITY CULTURE: From qualitative deep-dives and readings we see a lot of ambiguousness in the incel culture: Discussions around ‘chads’ and ‘stacys’ are characterised by ambivalence as these figures are constantly contested and constructed both as who incels hate and considers as outsiders to the culture, and who they wish they could be (chads)/be with (stacys).

  6. HATE DOES NOT DECREASE OVER TIME OR WITH BANNING: Tracking changes in the levels of hateful content over time, we see no decrease in hate-speech with the platform’s first closing of toxic incel subreddit: In r/incels explicitly hateful content made up between 15-20% of posts from 2016 until the fora was closed at the end of 2017. Before r/incels was closed there was very low post activity in r/Braincels altogether (<100 posts per month), and 0-5% of posts contained explicitly hateful content. After r/incels closes we see a massive spike in both the overall post activity of r/Braincels as well as a significant spike in the percentage of explicitly hateful content, which rises to between 15-17% (similar to what the share of hateful content used to be on r/incels). As such, it seems that there is a more or less ‘perfect migration’ of activity from r/incels to r/Braincels.

  7. NO USER-TRAVEL BETWEEN SUBREDDITS: While the 4 most active users in r/Braincels have almost no posting activity in r/incels, the 4 most active users in r/incels have no posting activity in r/Braincels, indicating that the same users are not necessarily active or travel across subreddits.

  8. HATE-SPEECH IS NOT GENDERED: Further, a calculation of the amount of hateful posts mentioning either ‘stacys’ or ‘chads’ has incidacted that incel hate-speech (as explicitly hateful content detected by Hatebase’s algorithm) is not gendered: While 18% of posts uniquely about ‘chads’ contain hate-speech, 15% of posts uniquely about ‘stacys’ contain hate-speech.

1. Introduction

In recent years scholars in social science, feminist studies and digital methods have started to study the so-called ‘manosphere’ on the web from the concern that these digital communities act to encourage “(...) misogyny and violent threats towards women online, as well as for potentially radicalising lonely or dis-enfranchised men” (Farrell et al. 2019: 87). In these studies, special attention is being placed on the so-called ‘incels’; the involuntary celibates that identify themselves as being unable to find a sexual partner, despite desiring one, while typically blaming social liberalism, feminism, and sexually active men for their rejection from women (Scaptura et al. 2019). In an effort to shed light on this group, studies have i.e. problematised how the incel community promotes more sexually explicit, violent, racist and homophobic language (Farrell et al. 2019) and highlighted that incels’ misogynistic community has been ideologically linked to recent acts of politically motivated violence, including Alek Minassian’s 2018 van attack in Toronto and Elliot Rodger’s 2014 school shooting in Isla Vista (Baele et al. 2019).

While a few scholars have started to inquire into the online communities of the manosphere, and incels in particular, thorough empirical investigations are still scarce - especially when it comes to the more pseudonymous and anonymous communications spaces of the web: While Jones et al. (2019) uses Twitter data to investigate the toxic masculinity of Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW) as a separatist Manosphere group, studies by Jaki et al. (2019) and De Smedt et al. (2018) both use natural language processing techniques to investigate the incel community on the webforum. In a more traditional methodological approach, Scapture (2019) and Scaptura et al. (2019) use self-report surveys among 18-30 year old males to study how masculinity threat and challenges from women translate into fantasies of mass and gender-based violence. Finally, Ging (2019), Baele (2019) as well as Bratich & Banet-Weiser (2019) take a purely theoretical approach to conceptualising the masculinities of the Manosphere. This means that incel culture remains heavily understudied in anonymous online platforms such as 4CHAN, 8CHAN, Reddit and other digital spaces inhabited by the group (Nagle 2017).

Only one study by Farrell et al. (2019) maps incels on Reddit. In a study of 6 million posts across seven subreddits the authors explore the flow of extreme language across subreddits from 2011 to 2018 to track how misogynistic ideas spread within and across these communities. The study reveals increasing patterns of misogynistic content and users with violent attitudes, “(...) corroborating existing theories of feminist studies that the amount of misogyny, hostility and violence is steadily increasing in the manosphere” (Farrell et al. 2019: 87). While this study provides some empirical evidence of a rise in misogynistic content in the digital manosphere, we are still left with a need for more empirical research and a myriad of unanswered questions about the dynamics of the incel community with regards to; how the incels demarcate themselves as a subculture, how incels discuss and negotiate masculinity, and how levels of hate-speech change over time and across subreddits as some subreddits are banned by the platform for being too toxic. These questions are explored here in a study of incel culture across three subreddits, from 2016 to 2020.

2. Data Sets

Using 4CAT (Peeters & Hagen 2018)) the empirical work of this project is based on construction of 6 datasets; running two different queries in the three subreddits of r/incels, r/Braincels and r/ForeverAlone.

Time-frame: All three subreddits (both datasets) have been queried from 01.01.2016 to 01.01.2020.

2.1 First dataset: in-group figures

First query: With the first query we wanted to explore what prominent ‘idols’ or ‘in-group’ characters are mentioned by incels and see how often they are mentioned over time. To do this we took two steps:

Step 1: Desk research identification of prominent ‘idols’ in incel culture to create a list of ‘in-group’ figures Step 2: Querying the list in the three subreddits to find all posts where these figures are mentioned.

Keywords included in query: alek|minassian|andreas|lubitz|ben|moynihan|christopher|harper-mercer|dylan|klebold|eric|harris|gein|elliot|rodger|emmanuel|deshawn|aranda|frank|vitkovic|george|sodini|mutsuo|toi|seung-hui|cho|tomohiro|kato|ted|bundy|kemper|adolf|hitler|napoleon|joker|squidward|josef|fritzl|michael|jackson|nikola tesla|Schoepenhauer|Julius|evola|nero|Patrick|crusius|dahmer

Resulting datasets: This query resulted in the following three datasets, later compiled:

  • r/incels: 4.133 posts

  • r/Braincels: 10.493 posts

  • r/ForeverAloner: 4.719 posts

  • In total: 19.345 posts

2.2 Second dataset: out-group figures

Second query: With the second query we sought to discover what prominent figures and characters incels mention as ‘out-group’ references; as hated or antagonised figures. To explore this we used the vernacular specific to incel culture ‘chads’ and ‘stacys’ (Jaki et al. 2019) to query all three subreddits.

Keywords included in query:


Resulting datasets: This query resulted in the following three datasets, later compiled:

  • r/incels: 61.849 posts

  • r/Braincels: 160.915 posts

  • r/ForeverAloner: 11.120 posts

  • In total: 233.524 posts

3. Research Questions

The project circles around investigating three main research questions:

  1. What historic or cultural figures do incels point to as either heroes or antagonists as a practice of demarcating incel subculture with respect to who is in, and who is out? Does this change over time?

  1. How much attention do incels give to male and female figures (chads and stacys)? And what role does ambiguity play in the incels’ negotiation of chads and stacys as contested figures that are both constructed as who incels aspire to be/be with and who they hate and distance themselves from?

  1. As subreddits have been closed (Nov 2017 & Oct 2019) and allegedly ‘less toxic’ subreddits emerge, can we detect an actual decrease in hate-speech over time across Reddit fora?

  • Is hate-speech gendered and directed differently at men and women in the culture?
  • And do prominent incel-users move to the new subreddits or leave Reddit?

4. Methodology

The study builds on a snowball method developed during the course together with other participants. The goal was to identify keywords used among the “incel” community in order to create a more generalizable protocol for identifying keywords (and, by extension, public figures) among different communities and subcultures on Reddit and 4chan. Our approach recognizes the practices of inclusion and exclusion, of in-group and out-group, in the mutual creation of subcultures. As a subculture, incels use a very specific vocabulary to both distance themselves from the outside and to identify themselves as a group with a specific set of values. In this way, incels construct and define their identity based on self-ascribed attributes as well as the community’s active exclusion of normative, or “normie,” traits.

We have worked in 4 phases described below:

Phase 1: Desk research of the incel community to create a set of keywords that will function as the starting point. Through the desk research, we identified keywords, which were split into two categories, those of “in-group” and “out-group” keywords.

Phase 2: Keyword searches in incel fora to identify public figures that the subculture is identifying with. We use 4CAT to extract datasets from specific subreddits and 4chan boards collecting threads containing the keywords identified in phase 1. Within these datasets, we found several public figures with whom incels identify with or idolize, or public figures with whom they distance themselves from.

Phase 3: From the extensive list of public figures that we found by using keyword searches such as “an hero” or “ourguy AND incel” identified in phase 1, we also discovered additional keywords that are used to indicate “in-grouping” or “out-grouping” such as “saint” or “tyrone” etc.

Phase 4: Extracting datasets of all posts in specific subreddits containing at least one of the names of the public figures identified through this method.

For finding keywords and public figures we used 4CAT to investigate both Reddit and 4Chan. From this initial investigation there seems to be different communities or at least different ways the community talk about who is “in” and who is “out”. This could be a potential next step in this research area. However, this current project only map the incel community on different subreddits.

5. Findings

Our findings will be presented in relation to each of the three research questions posed by this study.

RQ1: What historic/cultural figures do incels point to as heroes or antagonists in a practice of demarcating the subculture with respect to who is in, and who is out? Does this change over time?

In the above visualisation, we have illustrated the frequency of how much certain “in-group” or contedstedly “in-group” figures are discussed over time. These mentions often coincide with real-world events, be they of a tragic and violent nature (such as the acts of Elliot Rodger and Alek Minassian) or more mundane events related to the subculture such as the release of the “Joker” film in 2019. The Joker film in particularly was highly discussed in conjunction with its release and marketing, which seemed particularly geared towards creating discussions in and around the manosphere and incel community.

A third category of persons in the above illustration is that of historical figures, who are in turn often either known as violent commanders of war (e.g. Adolf Hitler and Emperror Napoleon) or serial murders. (e.g. Ted Bundy). Here we found no immediately apparent “outside world” cause for any spikes in their being mentioned on the subreddits, though we found it notable that they never seemed to disappear from the discussion entirely.

Three Qualitative Deep Dives

In the below - we have selected three frequently discussed characters in the incel community for qualitative “deep dives”. What we would like to emphasize in these deep dives is how all three characters are the subject of contestation, insofar as it is a subject of discussion whether they can count as exemplars or representations of the incel community. Even so, it was far from uncommon to find examples of all three figures being praised, especially for the ability to take violent action.

This, we believe, reveals a tension at the heart of the incel community and identity. Violent killers, or people associated with violent acts and crimes, can often be praised for being people able to assert themselves and take action. Any violent action may be justified by an incel identity and experience which is implicitly shared among both the members of the community and the person or fictional character to whom they ascribe an “incel” identity.

In stark opposition to the violent and assertive “incel” is the figure of the “chad”. While the “chad” is usually discussed for his assertiveness, or - even worse - his natural ability at (romatic, sexual and social) victory without seeming effort, these are qualities which are mostly discussed derisively. We shall delve into this further in the following.

RQ2: How much attention do incels give to male and female figures (chads and stacys)? And what role does ambiguity play in the incels’ negotiation of chads and stacys as contested figures that are both constructed as who incels aspire to be/be with and who they hate and distance themselves from?

As indicated in the above, and as will be demonstrated further in the following, the incel community spends a great deal of time discussing or mentioning so-called “chad” exemplars. This in and of itself is not surprising, as the analysis (also tacitly present in the incel community) that visual and fame-oriented professions such as acting tend to favour the conventionally attractive and thus leave little room for non-conventionally attractive agents to operate. Furthermore, fame-based professions tend to favour a power law, which ascertains that those in the lead of a given field tend to lead by miles.

What is perhaps more surprising is that the incel community seems to be completely uninterested in discussing any specific female celebrities, or women in general. As will become apparent in the following figures, we were only able to ascertain four named female celebrities that appeared with any notable frequency in our dataset. The women in question are two singers - Ariadna Grande and Taylor Swift - and two actresses, Angelina Jolie and Emma Watson. As an aside, it should be noted that at least the two latter of these women - Watson in particular - are perhaps also well-known for their feminist-centered public activism.

However, neither of these women garner as much as a hundred mentions in our available sample. This cements our description of the incel community as a community of men, talking to men, about men.

RQ3: As subreddits have been closed (Nov 2017 & Oct 2019) and allegedly ‘less toxic’ subreddits emerge, can we detect an actual decrease in hate-speech over time across Reddit fora?

  • Is hate-speech gendered and directed differently at men and women in the culture?
  • And do prominent incel-users move to the new subreddits or leave Reddit?

6. Discussion

In this reported we have presented a digital methods quali-quantitative study of the so-called “incel” subculture as it manifests on the pseudonymous internet platform Reddit. The study covers new ground not only in its subject matter, but also its methodology of a combination close, qualitative readings and quantification of persons - historical, fictional and recent - discussed within this particular subculture and according to what in- or out-group standards these are discussed.

The study is strengthened by its methodological approach of recursive snowball sampling in order to uncover the significant figures discussed within this community. However, one notable limitation is in that we have not been able to take into account any nicknames of the fictional, historical and recent celebrities discussed within this community that they themselves may have made up. In spite of this, we judge that the numbers presented here are a valid indicator of the extent to which these persons and characters are discussed within this community.

7. Conclusions

This project has inquired into the “Incel” subculture as it manifests itself on the social media platform Reddit. Here we answered three research questions.

The first major research question uncovered how the Incel subculture was preoccupied with discussing either (1) conventionally attractive and mostly male Hollywood celebrities (e.g. Brad Pitt) (2) historical generals and leaders often discussed as brutal and violent (e.g. Hitler and Napoleon) (3) historical serial killers, mostly known for targeting women (e.g. Ted Bundy) (4) more recent killers associated with the Incel movement (e.g. Alek Minassian and Elliot Rodger) and (5) Fictional characters trying that are ostensibly a representation of the incel identity (most notably The Joker).

The first of these five groups is unambiguously discussed as containing “chads and stacy”, i.e. the totemic identification of the “out-group” of the incel community. The latter four contain people and characters who are to various degrees being contested as either being or not being part of the “incel” community. Most significantly, a recurring narrative surrounding the people in these categories is that any violent action taken by them will often be attributed to them being members of the incel community, or just the victims of the same societal forces that allegedly plague the incels. This is usually used as a justification or vindication of any violent action these people may have taken.

In our second major finding, we find something we discussed how the incel community also has a very ambiguous relationship to the people the totemize in the out-group as “chads”. These persons are heavily discussed, but as men are extremely overrepresented as the subjects of these discussions, we find that this reinforces the idea of the incel community being a community of men, talking to men about men. Anything having to do with any concrete women - at least any concrete named women, is entirely secondary to this.

This also ties into a unifying point surrounding both our first and second research question: that both the “in” and “out-group” characters, be they fictional, historical or related to current events are highly contested within the incel community, both are treated with a mixture of reverence and disgust.

Finally, we looked at the effect of deplatforming, in this particular instance the closing of subreddits. Here, we found no evidence that prominent users from the two closed subreddits moved from one to the other. We therefore surmised that they either moved elsewhere or “disappeared” as incel agents.

We recommend that future research should more closely into the migration of so-called “incel” website users, in order to uncover any evidence for whether or not they move to platforms not mapped by the present study.

8. References

Peeters, S. & Hagen, S. (2018) 4CAT: Capturing and Analysis Toolkit. Computer software. Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam.

Jaki, S., De Smedt, T., Gwóźdź, M., Panchal, R., Rossa, A., & De Pauw, G. (2019). Online hatred of women<? br?> in the Incels. me forum: Linguistic analysis and automatic detection. Journal of Language Aggression and Conflict, 7(2), 240-268. ttps://

Baele, Stephane J., Lewys Brace, and Travis G. Coan. 2019. “From ‘Incel’ to ‘Saint’: Analyzing the Violent Worldview behind the 2018 Toronto Attack.” Terrorism and Political Violence 0 (0): 1–25.

Bratich, Jack, and Sarah Banet-Weiser. 2019. “From Pick-Up Artists to Incels: Con(Fidence) Games, Networked Misogyny, and the Failure of Neoliberalism.” International Journal of Communication 13 (0): 25.

Farrell, Tracie, Miriam Fernandez, Jakub Novotny, and Harith Alani. 2019. “Exploring Misogyny across the Manosphere in Reddit.” In WebSci ’19 Proceedings of the 10th ACM Conference on Web Science, 87–96. Boston.

Ging, Debbie. 2019. “Alphas, Betas, and Incels: Theorizing the Masculinities of the Manosphere.” Men and Masculinities 22 (4): 638–57.

Nagle, Angela. 2017. Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan And Tumblr To Trump And The Alt-Right. John Hunt Publishing.

Scaptura, Maria N., and Kaitlin M. Boyle. 2019. “Masculinity Threat, ‘Incel’ Traits, and Violent Fantasies Among Heterosexual Men in the United States.” Feminist Criminology, December, 1557085119896415.

Scaptura, Maria N. 2019 "Masculinity Threat, Misogyny, and the Celebration of Violence in White Men." PhD diss., Virginia Tech, 2019.

Jones, Callum, Verity Trott, and Scott Wright. 2019. "Sluts and soyboys: MGTOW and the production of misogynistic online harassment." New Media & Society 2019: 1461444819887141.

De Smedt, Tom, Sylvia Jaki, Eduan Kotzé, Leïla Saoud, Maja Gwóźdź, Guy De Pauw, and Walter Daelemans. 2018. "Multilingual Cross-domain Perspectives on Online Hate Speech." arXiv preprint arXiv:1809.03944 (2018).

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Topic revision: r1 - 22 Jan 2020, SofieThorsen
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