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Toronto van attack shows that ignoring online misogyny has deadly consequences

Police are seen near a damaged van after it mounted a sidewalk and crashed into pedestrians in Toronto on April 23.
Police are seen near a damaged van after it mounted a sidewalk and crashed into pedestrians in Toronto on April 23. AP

A few days after last week’s devastating Toronto van attack, a Facebook post by alleged attacker Alek Minassian came to light, indicating he may have been an “incel,” or an involuntary celibate. The incel community seems to have started in July 2016. Based on a grand pessimism that their genes and unattractiveness will prevent them from ever having sex, incels bond over complaints about women and revenge fantasies. Quickly gaining around 40,000 followers in the next 18 months, the incels community grew until the website Reddit banned it on Nov. 7. But it started another subgroup and continued to grow.

If Minassian was indeed radicalized in this community to hate “normies” — mainstream people who the incels presume have sex — then how can we prevent the rampage in Toronto from inspiring other real-life attacks? On incel forums, the Toronto rampage has inspired both fear that exposure will shut this community down — and excitement that the “incel rebellion” has begun. If Minassian was inspired by 2014 Santa Barbara, Calif., shooter Elliot Rodger, as Minassian’s Facebook post would indicate, who’s to say who will in turn be inspired by Minassian?

Feminists have been warning the world about incels and men’s rights activists for a while. When I wrote in November about how such groups can indoctrinate misogyny, my personal information was shared on the internet and I was harassed, perhaps ironically proving my point.

“Pickup artist” forums such as The Red Pill and others treat women as objects in a predatory game. “Men’s rights activists” who decry feminism do not actually face any oppression from those women — even though one former Google employee thought “diversity” was special treatment, and no matter that his followers think his subsequent dismissal over a memo he wrote was a violation of his free speech rights. These groups function on an idea of essential biological differences that dehumanize women: The Google engineer thought women were biologically unsuited for his chosen work, while incels think women (often called “femoids”) are biologically wired only to have sex with mainstream men they refer to as “Chads.” Men’s rights activism is a reaction to feminism — not in support of equality but a tactical move to undermine women’s rights.

So how do you address the complexities of the “bad influence” of the internet? Radical accountability is where we start.

Online image bank Giphy was recently booted by Snapchat and Instagram after a racist photo it hosted outraged users — and Giphy responded by cleaning out its database, signifying a shift in how we hold social media platforms accountable. Even as Facebook testifies before Congress and Twitter cracks down on bots, users need to ask the companies making money off our data to publicly answer for offensive content that’s been flagged to them. Not for legal but for moral reasons. That kind of accountability would start with public human moderation — expert and humane. Moderators could publicly address questionable content by sharing their reasoning with users. Our participation in online culture is increasingly vital.

Virulent fantasies online are not simply imaginary, and definitely not “just” an opinion. To “fix” the problem of misogynists indoctrinating and organizing and inspiring future rapists, murderers and terrorists online, we have to come to a consensus to prioritize the rights of women and gender minorities. We’ve done that in other cases: When the time came, social media platforms have addressed terrorism, like when Twitter found all those Islamic State accounts.

Misogyny is terror. Dehumanization enables it. The space between freedom of speech and hate speech — the thin legal sliver and broad moral ground — is one where our future safety lies. It is the battleground for what our society and our morality will look like. Hate speech doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s not simply words. It’s violence.

Aditi Natasha Kini is an essayist and multimedia artist based in Brooklyn.