When loneliness becomes lethal: New podcast explores dark underworld of online misogyny
Boys Like Me, hosted by Ellen Chloë Bateman, examines how socially-isolated young men can become radicalized
Content warning: the following article includes mention of violence against women, self-harm and sexual assault. Please take care while reading.
Why are lonely, young men a growing threat to our safety?
In 2018, a Toronto man drove a van down a busy sidewalk, killing 11 people and injuring many more. He was linked to the "incel" movement, a dark online world fuelled by violent misogyny, extreme isolation and perceived rejection.
In the wake of the attack, Evan Mead discovers a disturbing connection to the perpetrator. They were former high school classmates; both outcasts, existing together on the fringes of social acceptance.
How did two young men, who started in similar circumstances, end up on such drastically different paths?
Boys Like Me, a new five-part series from CBC Podcasts, examines how socially-isolated young men can vanish into an online world of nihilism and despair that radicalizes them into angry — and potentially deadly — misogynists.
Ellen Chloë Bateman, host of the podcast, spoke with CBC Podcasts about how this project became what it is today. Here is part of their conversation.
This project didn't start out as a deep-dive into incel culture, did it?
In March 2018, my friend Evan Mead and I had been working on a documentary titled Awkward Love. We were exploring the challenges young people who are on the autism spectrum experience in making social connections and finding love. Evan had started social camps for people like him, who were struggling with relationships and needed some guidance and mentoring. He would bring in experts and relationship coaches to give the people attending the camps some techniques and strategies for making friends and finding partners. It was a great experience and I really enjoyed working with Evan. And then, the Toronto van attack happened.
Hours after the attack, he got a call from a U.S.-based reporter, asking about his connection to Alek Minassian, as Evan was one of his 10 Facebook friends.
Alek Minassian had reached out in the month before the attack to Evan and some other old friends. Most of them didn't respond, but Evan did. They messaged back and forth a few times, but Evan had a lot happening in his life at the time and he let the conversation go cold. This has left him with lingering questions and feelings of guilt and regret.
I saw the work Evan had been doing in his workshops as the antithesis of, and maybe the antidote to the incel subculture, to which Minassian had connected himself. Evan is positive, optimistic and he wants to help people. Minassian tore hope and happiness from so many people that day. I wanted to understand how two friends from high school, who shared the same groups of friends, had similar diagnoses and life experiences, could have ended up on such different paths after graduation. So, Evan and I teamed up and set course to try and understand the reasons behind those terrible actions.
There are concerns outlined in the podcast that Alec Minassian's Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis, and the subsequent publication of this fact, would lead to further misunderstanding and stigma toward those on the spectrum. How did you navigate this in the podcast and avoid furthering that narrative?
This was one of our toughest challenges. There does seem to be a high number of incels who identify as having ASD, according to polling in the community. That fact is extremely uncomfortable, and the subject needs more research.
The feeling among some experts is that ASD doesn't lead you to become an extremist, but the social isolation, potential bullying and trauma often endured can cause depression and anxiety and put you more at risk for radicalization.
Overall, some studies have found that individuals with autism are no more likely to be violent compared to the general population. Research shows that these individuals, rather than being the perpetrators of crime, are actually more likely to be the victims.
When men and boys become entrenched and radicalized in these extremist spaces, it further damages their mental health, and their ability to make important connections in the real world that are essential to human development. It compounds their existing problems and in many cases, puts them at serious risk for self-harm and suicide.
In the podcast, you interview a self-described incel. What was that like?
I spent a few months going back and forth on Discord with an incel, who uses the handle 'Frail.' It took some time but we eventually connected for a few interviews. It was hard not to challenge the things he said, but it was more important in those moments to listen and to try and understand his mindset.
It's been difficult, as a woman, to read about the things men say about you online. Seeing the images and memes that they post. Rape and murder normalized under the guise of dark satire.
A lot of the guys on these sites have lived a life of isolation, rejection and depression, and these online communities — in their view — are all they have in terms of human connection. But they get stuck in an echo chamber that tells them nothing is ever going to get any better for them, and so they 'swallow the black pill,' which means adopting the belief that society is rigged against you and you might as well just LDAR: Lie Down and Rot. This is dangerous for them, and dangerous for society if someone like Alek Minassian stumbles across the content.
Guys like Frail like the challenge of one-upping each other on the forums with 'shitposting' (that's an academic term), and sharing the most gruesome ideas, memes and images. They're dejected, and they get a sense of power and entertainment from engaging with and creating extreme content. Still, a lot of incels actually do believe a lot of the heinous stuff they say, but other guys are more apathetic. I don't think Frail realizes the harm these posts can have on minds more vulnerable than his. Not everyone gets the 'joke' and this content is radicalizing young men with vulnerabilities. I've seen boys posting who are 15 years old.
Were there any moments during production where you felt uneasy or unsafe?
I've felt unsafe working on this project for a while now, a feeling that's intensified as we've gotten ready to launch. I've known for a while that I might end up the victim of a coordinated online threat campaign. As a woman doing work in this area, I can expect death and rape threats, or to have my address published online. I've spoken to women who are scared, who would only speak of their fear off the record. Women who have had their kids' lives threatened. Some of the groups we discuss in this series have organizational power and launch civil suits in an effort to intimidate women for reporting facts. Sometimes the threats move offline.
Women journalists often have to increase their personal security, which is something I've had to do. The effort to silence us, troll us, scare us and trash us for sport is an effective tool in the fight against progress.
Following the Toronto van attack, the term 'incel' became more widely known and understood — but the podcast explores a much more nuanced version of it. What do you think people would be surprised to know — or what should they know? — about these communities?
Extreme online misogyny goes way beyond the incel community — incel is just one part of a constellation of subcultures known as the 'manosphere,' that are united by a male supremacist worldview.
Compounding all of this distorted worldview is extremist rhetoric, mantras and memes from the alt-right and white-supremacist organizations, whose anti-women remarks are on par with what you'll find on male-supremacist forums. Men orbit around these groups, soaking in different ideas from different places, not necessarily indoctrinated into any one ideology or community, but enthralled and entertained by all of it — the shitposts, the memes and the gleeful trolling. Extreme-misogyny and racism feature just about everywhere.
This is not the misogyny of the past. Online misogyny is a new, supercharged brand of extreme hate and, incredibly, most people don't know there's a problem. It's not in the places that us 'normies' typically spend our digital downtime, but in a constellation of forums, boards, blogs, vlogs, YouTube channels and platforms where our kids play video games.
Holding on to shame, anger and resentment will entrench us deeper, and we need to find some space in our society for empathy, even for incels, if we're going to dig our way out of this mess.- Ellen Chloë Bateman
What was Evan Mead's role in this project?
We explored Evan's experience as a young man, from navigating the complicated world of high school from the perspective of a kid in a special needs program, to trying to find love, connection and friends as an adult. People with ASD are often represented as two-dimensional characters in popular culture, and Evan wanted to have a real and frank discussion about what his experiences were actually like, the mistakes he'd made, and how and where his path diverged from Minassian's.
What working with Evan made clear for me, or rather confirmed for me, is that hope and love are key ingredients in the fight against extremism. We're all imperfect specimens as human beings, doing our best in a fast-changing, divisive and disconnected world. Holding on to shame, anger and resentment will entrench us deeper, and we need to find some space in our society for empathy, even for incels, if we're going to dig our way out of this mess.
There is a lot of discourse online about how we shouldn't give these extremist voices a platform. What's your response to that?
There's a lot of silence around the subject of online misogyny, and the gender-based hate crimes that result. There's silence about crimes of sexual and physical violence against women generally, still, even in the wake of #MeToo. There's silence and fear around reporting on the communities that indoctrinate young men with conspiracy theories and narratives of hate.
The fact is, we're ill-equipped to deal with all of the threats in our digital world and it's time for us to wake up to the real world dangers these online subcultures represent.- Ellen Chloë Bateman
And there's silence around reporting on stories like Minassian's, often with good reason. This was difficult to balance and it led us into some deep discussions as a group. If we could have avoided talking about Minassian or saying his name, we would have. But these subcultures gave context and motivation for his crimes, and the experts we've spoken with are sounding an alarm. These online spaces are dangerous, and they risk becoming worse if we don't talk about them.
If people aren't even aware of the problem, it makes it difficult to develop interventions for. Lack of access to information stops us from understanding the signs of radicalization, and that information might help us spot the signs of a potential mass-killer.
The fact is, we're ill-equipped to deal with all of the threats in our digital world and it's time for us to wake up to the real-world dangers these online subcultures represent. Misogyny is a core value of just about every form of extremism, and as these groups grow in membership, everyone's at risk.
Q&A edited for length & clarity.