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Photo by Solen Feyissa from Unsplash

PORTSMOUTH, England — A new study from the University of Portsmouth highlights the concerning emergence of incel ideology on the social media video network TikTok. Incels, or “involuntary celibates,” are individuals, particularly men, who express extreme misogynistic views, often associating themselves with violent actions against women.

Incidents tied to incels, such as the 2021 Plymouth shooting, the 2020 Toronto machete attack, and the 2018 Toronto van attack, have alarmed both policymakers and researchers. While the incel community was previously believed to be relegated to obscure internet forums, this study indicates their presence on more mainstream platforms like TikTok.

What the study, conducted by researchers Anda Solea and Lisa Sugiura and published in the European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research. found was alarming: not only was incel-related content readily findable on the platform, it was racking up significant engagement in the form of views, likes and supportive comments.

Diving Deeper Into ‘Incel Ideology’

So what exactly is the “incel ideology” and why is its potential mainstreaming so concerning? At its core, incel philosophy centers around the concept of the “blackpill” – a fatalistic belief that physical attractiveness is the supreme determining factor in one’s romantic and sexual success. Incels believe that modern society is defined by a cruel, winner-take-all hierarchy where only genetically gifted “Chads” and “Stacys” can thrive, while unattractive men are doomed to rejection and loneliness.

This worldview is often laced with intense misogyny and resentment. Women are seen as shallow, cruel creatures who discriminate against “beta males” in favor of muscled “bad boys.” Incels frame this as a grave injustice and themselves as oppressed victims. Some even encourage or celebrate violence against women as “revenge.” Multiple mass killings, including the 2014 Isla Vista massacre, have been linked to perpetrators who identified as incels or expressed similar ideas.

While these kinds of overt calls for violence are thankfully rare, Solea and Sugiura’s analysis shows how a softened but still toxic version of incel ideology is spreading on TikTok. The study looked at 52 videos from two popular incel-aligned accounts, with a combined 8,955 followers and over 2.8 million total likes. Rather than the explicit hate found on dedicated incel forums, TikTok creators used more subtle “emotional appeals” and pseudo-scientific framing to promote core incel concepts to a general audience.

For example, multiple videos pushed the incel notion of “lookism,” the idea that unattractive men face systemic discrimination from superficial women. Using sad music and imagery of downtrodden men, these videos paint a picture of pervasive injustice against the genetically unfortunate – of women cruelly and gleefully rejecting any man who isn’t a chiseled Adonis.

Other videos presented questionable graphs and statistics to argue that women have unreasonable standards, rejecting any man under 6-feet tall. The manipulative subtext is clear: this isn’t just individual preference, but proof of society-wide oppression against average-looking men.

Perhaps most troublingly, some videos outright pushed “rape culture” by suggesting that only ugly men need to worry about consent. Handsome “Chads,” the videos imply, can get away with sexual assault because women desire them. It’s an idea that got disturbingly positive reactions in the comments. As one user put it: “The difference between flirting and assault is how attractive you are.”

Scapegoat For Young Men

This gets at the core danger of incel ideology spreading, even in a watered-down form. By framing romantic rejection as oppression and women’s choices as injustice, incels provide young men with a simplistic scapegoat for their dating frustrations. And by portraying consent as conditional on attractiveness, incel content props up the same rape myths that real-world sexual abusers use to minimize their crimes.

“These clever subtle approaches aim to resonate with broader audiences, including those who might be unfamiliar with the intricacies of incel ideology,” Sugiura, an associate professor in cybercrime and gender at the University of Portsmouth, explains in a university media release. “They present a challenge to policymakers and a real danger to women. As TikTok gains popularity, more needs to be done to understand the growing incel activity on the platform.”

As the study argues, this isn’t just about the spread of one fringe subculture, but the amplification of much broader regressive attitudes about gender. Incel concepts like “feminine privilege” and “unrestrained female pickiness” are really just repackaged sexist stereotypes in new lingo. By tapping into these pre-existing biases, incel content on TikTok has an easier time gaining traction.

And this mainstreaming process has real consequences beyond the screen. Repeated exposure to the idea that unattractive men are oppressed may lend it undue legitimacy in the eyes of some. Rape culture is further normalized. Resentment and dehumanization of women is stoked. In the worst cases, disaffected young men may have their self-pity and rage validated, sinking them deeper into the incel community.

How concerned should we be? It’s hard to say from one study alone. The majority of the millions scrolling through TikTok will likely never engage with incel content. And it’s unlikely that a few viral videos can single-handedly “convert” hordes of otherwise well-adjusted young men into hardcore woman-haters. But cultural changes often happen not through single dramatic events, but the slow accrual of influences that shift what’s seen as normal or acceptable.

In this sense, the spread of the blackpill on TikTok is a very dark omen indeed. It suggests that the bigoted ideas of fringe internet communities are gradually seeping into the mainstream, finding new life and new audiences on the very same platforms we use for dance challenges and funny skits. The incel worldview posits a reality where cruelty is justified by an imaginary biological hierarchy. The more that view is normalized, the more our own reality comes to reflect it.

About Matt Higgins

Matt Higgins worked in national and local news for 15 years. He started out as an overnight production assistant at Fox News Radio in 2007 and ended in 2021 as the Digital Managing Editor at CBS Philadelphia. Following his news career, he spent one year in the automotive industry as a Digital Platforms Content Specialist contractor with Subaru of America and is currently a freelance writer and editor for StudyFinds. Matt believes in facts, science and Philadelphia sports teams crushing his soul.

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3 Comments

  1. Alone says:

    If you’re really studying incels, you might try tracking all the insults and abusiveness toward incels that will go around the internet culture from just this study alone. An incel is simply anyone who hasn’t had sex for more than six months, as defined by a woman researcher who called herself an incel. I’ve faced a lot of abuse during times when I’m alone, and the internet perpetuates it. By posting this “study,” you “justified” abusing incels to hate-filled people. I got abuse without the word and internet to spread it, so I know the incel-haters — and some of them are the alleged journalists, not just commenters — are doing harm to a lot of lonely men. There must be millions of lonely men you’re hurting. Please be concerned about your words and how they spread first.

  2. John Barber says:

    The problem is that our society has encouraged emasculation of males by condemning anything that is deemed ‘toxic masculinity’. Men are encouraged to be betas and to blur the lines between being a man and a women.

  3. Nicholas B Taylor says:

    I think there are genetic factors at work too. Three generations of my family have had broken relationships, children having lived predominantly with their mothers, or with only intermittent contact with fathers. I myself am unmarried, though I could probably not have coped with the stress. I have had several short relationships. When I was late teenage one girl said I was ‘dishy’ and recently a woman described me as ‘photogenic’, but something they need is missing, maybe because I am slightly autistic and don’t respond as they expect. Anyway, look at actual average couples, and clearly super-attractive looks are not the primary factor, even though they are pushed relentlessly by advertising. I suspect that the main factor is the not unreasonable freedom of women to support themselves rather than having to depend on a male ‘breadwinner’, a legacy of artificial, religiously enforced patriarchal culture; and to bring up children without their fathers – a rather less healthy development.