Jake Davison, a self-proclaimed incel, murdered five others and then himself in a mass shooting attack within the English town of Plymouth. The attack, which shares the same ideological background as mass murders committed by Canadian Alek Minassian and American Elliot Rodger, affirms the growing trend of online extremism as a significant problem that western societies need to address.
Davison, like many other young males, became enveloped by the online incel community—a loosely connected transnational group that blames women for their own sexual failings and pushes a misogynistic discourse around an echo chamber of women-hating and self-loathing. For most, their involvement in this sub-culture only extends to discussion and a sense of camaraderie through online social media platforms. However, a growing proportion of incels are undertaking both virtual and physical attacks on those they perceive as valid targets.
For Davison, his trajectory towards undertaking a violent attack follows an all-too-familiar story of a frustrated, isolated, and lonely young man attracted by extremist dialogues that offer solutions to his perceived grievances. His post history on Reddit indicates a man who felt belittled and beaten by an unfair world and released that frustration by targeting women and the LGBTQ community. He’s self-described as having little to no friendships and used his social media involvement to compensate for this loneliness. The COVID-19 pandemic further amplified Davison’s isolation and increased his reliance upon an incel worldview.
What needs to be emphasised by Davison’s story and that of other incel extremists is the nature of their radicalisation, a process that occurred entirely online.
In recent years, we have started to see a significant shift in how extremists use the online world. Recruitment, socialisation, and mobilisation have begun to all be undertaken exclusively online. A new generation of tech-savvy and hyper-social extremists have emerged and are producing narratives that appeal to the young and emotionally vulnerable within our society. An expansive web of chat rooms, forums, video hosting sites, gaming platforms, and alternative social media platforms are becoming the new hotbeds of extremism and are drawing significant proportions of the population into their net.
Studies into extremism found that in 2016, 88 per cent of lone actors who committed a violent attack were radicalised and mobilised through social media, a rising trend from the preceding decade. More recent findings support an even sharper increase in the relationship between online communities and extremism during the pandemic. Particularly concerning is how easily accessible these groups are, with mainstream social media sites used as entry points for vulnerable individuals to descend deeper into damaging ideologies. Like other western nations, Australia is not immune to the transnational online nature of incel communities, and during the pandemic, a new wave of young men have been drawn to its degrading rhetoric.
These extremist communities play into the insecurities and vulnerabilities of individuals who feel besieged by modern society by offering communities of support, identity, and direction. Within incel culture, a lexicon of “Stacys”, “Chads”, and “Virgins” create a gateway into a more derogatory value system of militant misogyny. As members become more involved and spend more time within these online communities, the opportunity for motivations and justifications to undertake virtual or physical activity increases.
The national security community within Australia has begun to shift its focus towards online extremist communities and is developing responses to these threats. Examples of this shift include portals that allow concerned community members to report online extremist materials to security agencies, as well as Australia’s eSafety commissioner presenting to the Parliamentary Joint Committee’s hearing on Intelligence and Security about online extremism earlier this year. However, despite the growing recognition that novel political and ideological extremism is rising within Australia, prioritising of the online environment is still under-developed and does not pose an efficient response in comparison to Europe.
The European Union, and in particular Germany, offer inspiration for innovative methods to combat the rising risk posed by online environments. The development of new legislation that sets out regulations for online businesses, such as The EU Digital Services (DSA) and NetzDG acts, are stepping stones towards increasing the responsibility online services have for content on their sites. Furthermore, the United Kingdom’s PREVENT strategy is acknowledging the appeal that online communities have for vulnerable individuals, and is emphasising the need to instil personal resilience and awareness of extremist strategies through education.
Australia needs to invest in a holistic, proactive, and long-term approach that involves all aspects of society to combat the rising potential of digitally radicalised individuals committing attacks. Interventions that interconnect policymaking with tech groups, the rapid development of modern legislation to disrupt extremist groups and their online channels, and social policies aimed at developing individual education and resilience towards extremist messaging are just some ways that Australia can improve its response to this emerging threat.
Without preventative and proactive steps taken now, it will not be long before Australia faces its version of the Plymouth Shootings.
Jack Milts is a post-graduate student from the University of Cambridge and the University of Queensland, specialising in terrorism and radicalisation.