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How Reddit Is Used to Indoctrinate Young Men Into Becoming Misogynists

Reddit's "involuntary celibate" group was taken down earlier this month after its anti-woman debate turned violent. But the problem is much larger than one subreddit.

Amid a global conversation about sexual assault, a group of men complaining about their "involuntary celibacy" have lost their central platform.

In the r/incels subreddit, young men wrote about how they couldn’t find women to have sex with. The subreddit, which had 40,000 users a week ago, was a casually misogynist forum that compared women to Nazis and so-called “Incels” to Jews, posited that rape is “just sex” and argued that we need to include “reverse rape”— not having sex with someone—in the #MeToo conversation.


But it wasn’t until last week that the sub was banned for violent content, shortly after a young man turned to the forum to talk about his roommate, who he called “suicide fuel.” The user said it was painful to see his roommate, a “better human being,” have a girlfriend and talk about his close-knit family. Other members jumped in to offer advice to this man about his attractive roommate, a so-called “Chad” in incel speak. They encouraged and instructed the poster to castrate his roommate.

Like other anti-women subreddits, r/incels has been catching heat for a while. It even spawned its own watchdog community r/inceltears, which remains to chronicle incel extremism. Reddit has not said what the exact comment was that led to their banning the subreddit for inciting violence.

"Communities focused on this content and users who post such content will be banned from the site,” their statement said. “As of Nov. 7, r/Incels has been banned for violating this policy.”

Image via r/incels

Reddit recently announced that they plan to re-tool their policy regarding violent content on the heels of an additional $200 million in venture capital funding. It began by cracking down on Nazi and white supremacist subreddits including r/Nazi, r/DylannRoofInnocent and r/farright. However, many misogynist subreddits, like r/MensRights, are still thriving.

This isn’t Reddit’s first attempt to clean house: Its first round started after CEO Yishan Wong’s resignation in 2014 after a flurry caused by a Gawker expose on a Redditor heavily involved in subreddits like r/jailbait and r/creepshots. Interim CEO Ellen Pao, famous for suing Kleiner Perkins for sexism, instigated the first major cleanup, to user revolt: Many Redditors didn’t want to give up any subreddits, including those devoted to hating fat people or leaking celebrity nudes. Pao, squarely vilified during her tenure, did not last the full year as interim, leaving after eight months. (Pao later went on to describe how exclusion is entrenched in tech.)


The glue of communities like r/incels is obvious: Men feel held back by the women who “have it easy.” And as with most online communities open to anyone with Internet connectivity, indoctrination is easy for an outsider to spot. (Though under special circumstances, open subreddits go underground: r/incels went private recently after a member posed as a woman in r/legaladvice for tips on getting away with rape.)

If cults have taught us anything, it’s that the first rule of indoctrination is you (try to) get them while they’re young. Most Redditors are young men, and Reddit offers them unfettered ability to form and engage with “misogyny clusters”—anti-women communities that share DNA, but have distinct personalities and creeds. R/incels is a cousin of many other misogyny clusters on Reddit, including r/MensRights, r/MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way—those who opt out of the “mating dance”), and r/TheRedPill.

Image via r/IncelTears

Ideology functions by creating a monolithic enemy: in the case of misogyny clusters, the enemy is the woman. Women can’t be incels—they are reduced to “femoids,” or “robot-like androids who only crave sex with Chads.” The enemy is often described as feminism itself, which these clusters view as a “doctrine of class hatred and violence”—that is to say, women use feminism to play victim and extort economic gain.

Language is another aspect of indoctrination. To that end, these misogyny clusters have created glossaries of their acronyms, offer cheat sheets, and have their own language patterns. The jargon of misogyny includes “hamster” (a “female” who jumps through mental hoops to avoid cognitive dissonance), AWALT (all women are like that), “roastie” (a repulsive word comparing roast beef to female genitalia), “pussy pass” (women are let off for illegal behavior), alpha/beta distinctions in attractiveness, and so on. The indoctrination is further enforced by the positive reinforcement and punishment of upvotes and downvotes.

Image via r/incels

Obviously, the real issue with ideology is that it’s not all talk, and it doesn’t stay behind a computer screen, like mass shooter Elliot Rodger who killed six people and identified as an incel in his notorious manifesto. The link between violence and misogyny is strong—mass shooters tend to be young white men who have a track record of sexual violence and entitlement. The Virginia Tech shooter harassed women on campus. Adam Lanza, who wrote about why women were “inherently selfish,” killed his mother before he murdered children in Sandy Hook. The Texas church shooter was dishonorably discharged from the military for severely abusing his wife and son. And in general, 40 percent of women murdered were killed by their partners. When people jump to blame mental illness instead of misogyny for this demonstrable pattern, they underestimate/undercut the violence of misogyny and undermine the safety of women. There is no diagnosis that all mass shooters share. Sexual entitlement is not in the DSM—but it’s chock full in unchecked online communities.

The radicalization of young men online is something that can be reduced: By pushing these clusters deeper into the web, they’re less accessible and harder to stumble upon. Similarly, radicalization can be reversed by breaking those siloes—one Redditor claims that reading different perspectives in the watchdog/parody community r/inceltears made him stop “prescribing [himself] such horseshit.” Reddit, as it implements new content policies, needs to do more than just crack down on objectionable content—it needs to find a way to de-radicalize the young men it’s responsible for.

Follow Aditi on Twitter.