Researcher of the Month
Mainstreaming the Black Pill: Incels on TikTok
You may well have heard of incels (involuntary celibates). Following several violent attacks associated with the ideology, this subgroup of the ‘manosphere’ has recently received a significant amount of media interest. Once mostly contained on niche men’s forums, incel communities and theories are gaining prominence on mainstream social media platforms.
The incels are an online community whose members define themselves by their inability to form or access sexual relationships with women. They believe that society is stratified according to physical attractiveness. Women and attractive men are privileged, and unattractive men (like them) are excluded from sexual or romantic relationships. The ‘black pill’ ideology maintains that unattractive men cannot escape their romantic fate because their unattractiveness is pre-determined by genetic factors. Incels believe that their physical traits are substandard and that they are therefore discriminated against by women based on their physical appearance. Misogynistic incels believe that this social structure has been created by women and encouraged by feminists. They consider women to be privileged, entitled, lookist and promiscuous, and believe that women always choose the most physically attractive men and exclude those who are less attractive, using pseudoscience and evolutionary psychology to reinforce their claims.
Whilst previous research considerably enhanced our understanding of the incel phenomenon and their presence on Reddit and secluded incel forums, incel’s presence on mainstream social media platforms is understudied and their presence on TikTok is yet to be addressed. Our Researcher of the Month, Anda Solea, is hoping to fill this research gap and has recently co-authored a paper on the incel subculture on TikTok. It examines the presence and spread of misogynistic narratives linked to incels on TikTok and YouTube aims to identify the mechanisms that drive engagement to such content.
TikTok is one of the most popular social media sites amongst children and teens. Whilst the platform does not release demographic data about its users, external surveys estimate that approximately 25% of TikTok users are between the ages of 10 and 19, and 47% are under the age of 30.
Anda took a sample of accounts on both TikTok and YouTube and identified 60 incel accounts in total (30 from each platform). She then selected five from YouTube and five from TikTok to study in depth. These five TikTok accounts had between 4000 and 10000 followers each and the videos from these accounts had between 200,000 and 700,000 likes. The most popular video in Anda’s sample had 1.6 millions views, 160,000 likes and over 1000 comments. Her published paper is a thematic analysis of two of these accounts, 52 videos and 1657 comments on TikTok.
Anda examined both the style and content of the accounts, noting that, due to the regulated nature of TikTok, the language and material used was less overtly misogynistic or racist than that on niche forums. In fact, the videos presented are often entertaining, or even amusing. They frequently repurpose viral internet content, memes and TV clips showing ‘unattractive’ men suffering at the hands of women and use these to create emotional appeals which portray men as victims. They also often employ pseudo-scientific claims, including fake and misinterpreted graphs, surveys and information based on evolutionary psychology and biological determinism, designed to expose women’s ‘true’ nature. Implicit, covert language and terminology is used to spread incel ideology to a wider, more mainstream audience. Some material actually encourages viewers to change their appearance through a process they called ‘bone smashing’ (instructing men/boys to use their own fist or a hammer to damage their face and change the structure of their bones), and blaming women for the need to take such action. Many of the accounts also contain links to more extreme and niche sites and forums.
TikTok’s set up, including the recommendation algorithms, the like and share features and the echo-chambers emerging from these features, aids, amplifies and distributes these messages to more people. This process of mainstreaming, legitimising and normalising incel beliefs is facilitated by their interconnectedness with wider sexism and structural gendered misconceptions such as male victimhood, and female privilege. The harms generating from this association are conducive to the normalisation of black pill beliefs and the reinforcement of misogyny, sexism and the justification of rape culture.
“The presence of misogynistic and violent beliefs on highly regulated platforms such as TikTok suggests that fringe beliefs and ideologies undergo a process of alteration to contravene platform regulations and be propelled to primarily young men.”
Implications at school and home:
Report it. If you know that your child has come across incel content, make sure that they report it. On TikTok, this is an easy process and instructions can be found here. However, even when it is reported, there may be some issues with having the post removed, especially if the content is covert, implicit or uses loopholes to get around banned terminology.
If young people express some of these ideas, don’t immediately shut them down. Remain curious and interested. If we shame young people, or make them feel bad, this could make them defensive and actually push them further towards misogynistic ideologies.
Ask where they saw the content or idea. Try to tease out the authenticity and credibility of the source material and encourage critical thinking when it comes to pseudoscience. Help them to search for the study or source elsewhere online. Is it real? Is it being used in the right context?
Develop empathy for others through open conversations. Encourage young people to consider how this content makes them feel and also how it might make others feel, particularly women and girls.
Have conversations about bias. Help children to spot gender stereotypes and biases by talking about them when you see them.
Resources Created from and Related to this Research
Anda Solea, PhD researcher in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Portsmouth.
Anda Solea is a PhD researcher in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Portsmouth. She completed a joint honours BSc in Criminology and Psychology at the University of Southampton and an MSc in Social and Organisational Psychology at the University of Exeter. Her PhD thesis examines the presence and spread of misogynistic narratives perpetuated by incels (involuntary celibates) on TikTok and YouTube. She aims to identify the mechanisms that drive engagement to such content and to raise awareness about the role mainstream social media platforms play in the spread of harmful ideologies responsible for the perpetuation of problematic gender stereotypes and violence against women.