The ethics of reporting on incels
When the highly anticipated Joker movie premièred last fall, some film critics and journalists seized upon the moment to invoke the apparent thematic connection to incels – an internet community established more than two decades ago as a “lonely-hearts” style forum that has morphed into an online movement linked to instances of real-world violence.
In asking questions such as, “Is the Joker backlash mere moral panic, or does the movie actually sympathize with incel culture?” (Rolling Stone), journalists speculated on how the film would be received by incels in the month before its Oct. 4 United States release. Film critics called the movie a “toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels” (Indiewire), and coolly asserted that the Joker, played by Joaquin Phoenix, “could easily be adopted as the patron saint of incels” (Time).
All of this was news to people in incel forums.
Zack Beauchamp, a Washington, D.C.-based Vox reporter who covers incels as part of his beat, was routinely tuning into the latest chatter on incel channels at the time. “What I found is, incels didn’t care about the Joker movie. It wasn’t a thing for them,” Beauchamp said in an interview. That is, until they latched onto the headlines about them, he said, creating memes about the film and “shitposting” – an internet culture behaviour which blends dark irony, “trolling” and cybersphere humour to create unusual content that could later become a meme.
“Incel shitposts are making people nervous about the Joker première,” a VICE headline claimed the day before the movie’s American release. Police services in New York and Los Angeles deployed officers to screenings in response to internal threat warnings from the FBI and U.S. military.
“The actual story here is that the media created a panic surrounding incels by turning a high-profile cultural event into something that the movement could go along to,” Beauchamp said, and may have drawn more attention to them. He also underscored that journalists should not relegate incels to a punchline.
Jokes, memes and shitposts aside, the incel community’s recent history is, in fact, frightening. It has moved from a fringes-of-internet oddity to a violent, misogynistic ideology and mainstream threat. This May, the RCMP and Toronto police jointly announced charges against a 17-year-old male, arrested for the February murder of Ashley Noell Arzaga, an employee at an erotic massage parlour — the first ever terrorism charge in Canada for targeted violence against women.
Unlike the ample journalistic resources available for reporting on mass shootings or terrorism, there is little guidance on the ethical challenges in covering incels. Deadly rampages such as those in Isla Vista, Calif. in 2014 and the van attack in Toronto in 2018 call for newsroom leaders and individual journalists to be acutely aware about how they cover this community.
With Canada shown to be a hotbed for online far-right extremism, newsrooms should be having conversations about how to navigate these complex ethical issues. Here are a few pointers from experts in the field to consider when reporting on incels.
Be mindful of the canonization of perpetrators in incel culture.
Incels often look to mass killers who were once active in their forums as heroes or “saints,” said Jacob Ware, a counterterrorism researcher based in Washington, D.C.
“Incel radicalization takes honest pain and turns it into hatred, and overblowing the threat risks intensifying the movement’s members’ grievances,” he said, in an email.
Academic work on incel radicalization is limited, and news organizations are doing most of the public-facing research, according to an April, 2020, journal article about incel violence, co-authored by Ware.
The emergence of right-wing extremism has highlighted the need for more diverse perspectives within the North American intelligence community as the scope of terrorism targets has shifted to women, and religious and ethnic minorities. “Those are the people who are under terrorism threat and the white-dominated Western counterterrorism structure has turned [towards] that threat,” Ware said in an interview.
Similar to the best practices for covering mass shootings, journalists should consider not prominently featuring the perpetrator’s photo in print, video broadcast and online – or not running it at all – unless there is a public safety justification, or the public interest outweighs potential harm.
Focusing on stories of the victims is another approach to shift the spotlight away from a killer’s infamy, and toward documenting and honouring the human cost left in the wake of an attack.
Don’t help incel recruitment efforts.
Barbara Perry, a professor and director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University, advises journalists to think about how their reporting could give incels more visibility.
“My response is that it’s always better that we shine a light on them in those dark corners where they live, rather than let them fly under the radar as they’ve done, prior to 2016, quite successfully,” Perry said in an interview.
Journalists should exercise caution and have an ethical framework for cases where they choose to name a social platform hosting hate speech. Many hate forums have been “de-platformed” from mainstream social media websites, or shut down due to a policy put forth by the media company, Perry said, and drawing attention to the new cyberspaces where incels congregate should not be done lightly. This also applies to publishing photos, manifestos and other content related to a violent incel figurehead or accused killer.
Be aware that you may have to notify authorities in the course of your reporting.
The thought of calling the police on a source would make most journalists recoil. For Vox’s Beauchamp, encountering a “low-probability, high-impact offence” threat is something he believes that reporters covering the incel world need to contend with, even if the majority of incels are non-violent.
“You have to be super, super conservative about what crosses your radar for a real threat of violence that justifies going beyond the work of a journalist and going into the work of an anti-hate monitor,” Beauchamp said.
Reporters on this beat should be vigilant and develop a deep understanding of the incel lexicon so as not to miss important developments or disproportionately inflate “shitposts.” Beauchamp said he consults with his editors at Vox when spotting red flags in forums, such as posts that endorse violence or suggest that some kind of action or “project” is underway.
Avoid language that stigmatizes, or pathologizes, without evidence.
Journalists who are unsure about how to approach a sensitive interview with a source who may be radicalized, or simply want to better prepare for covering incels, should consider reaching out to local experts and resources.
The Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence, a Montreal-based non-profit organization, runs a confidential helpline servicing people in Quebec. Callers, including journalists, can speak with Margaux Bennardi, the support and community engagement co-ordinator at the centre.
Her chief advice to reporters is to focus on the behaviours, not the individuals. “Talking about the individuals is to stigmatize the ‘type’” who could be drawn to radicalization in incel forums, such as framing the person as a “poor guy who is not able to find love,” Bennardi, a sexologist, said in an interview.
When considering identity, journalists should also think about how racial bias can come into play, as seen in the debate about how the media handles labelling white shooters as “lone wolves” and pathologizes their actions through speculated mental health problems, where non-white attackers are quickly and definitively labelled “terrorists.”
Advocate for developing ethical policies or guidelines on incel reporting ahead of time.
The financial plight of the resource-strapped news industry should not be an excuse for falling short on the responsibilities of the profession. Whether incels are a specific part of a reporter’s beat, or they cover crime and breaking news more generally, it helps to carve out some time to talk with editors about the organization’s approach. This could save a journalist from making snap decisions on higher-stakes ethical questions and getting it wrong.
“Standing in a newsroom when a breaking situation is happening and saying, ‘Well I think that we should change our practices right now,’ is going to be a fraught conversation,” said Kathleen Culver, a professor and director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“It’s a long game that’s best played not in a tense moment.”
(Culver recommends reading a report called “The Oxygen of Amplification: Better Practices for Reporting on Extremists, Antagonists, and Manipulators” for tips.)
Be transparent with your audience.
Finally, let readers into the ethical decision-making process through an editor’s note or addendum to a story, especially when deviating from the “default” position.
With experts bracing for an increase in online extremism ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November – and because of the COVID-19 pandemic – journalists should be mindful and prepare themselves to tell these kinds of stories, responsibly.