The man who gunned down seven people, killing five, in a rampage in Plymouth is being lionised by an online “incel” community, with some ironically venerating him as a “saint” and celebrating the attack as an aid to their recruitment drive.
Jake Davison, 22, killed his mother, Maxine, 51, after a row before going on to fatally shoot four others and then himself in August last year. Before his death, he expressed misogynistic and homophobic tendencies, as well as angrily lamenting his failure to find a girlfriend.
He also shared hate-filled views on Reddit forums used by incels – men who express online hostility and resentment towards those who are sexually active, particularly women.
Analysis of online forums popular with incels by counter-extremism experts reveals the extent to which Davison’s killings in August struck a chord with many who, like him, were drawn to the subculture.
Despite debate as to whether Davison was truly one of them, most of those posting on at least 13 threads hosted on the main English-language incel forum celebrated the attack, according to research shared with the Guardian by Moonshot, a counter-extremism tech company.
The killings also prompted speculation about where users believe another attack could occur and the possibility of media coverage of the attacks bringing an influx of new incels.
Recent data shows the number of visits to incel forums has increased by almost sixfold in nine months. The Times has reported that web traffic since March to three of the biggest incel sites has grown from 114,420 visits per month to 638,505.
Among those who identified as living in the UK, discussions in the months after the Plymouth attack also showed how these sites can be fertile ground for the far right and fringe conspiracy theorists.
They included responses to the fuel crisis, in which UK incels embraced “accelerationist” notions that shortages would lead to a larger crisis or civil war, or propagated conspiracy theories that the shortages were deliberately engineered in order to reform society around “climate goals”.
More than four months on from the killings, a nuanced debate continues among experts and campaigners in the field about the extent to which any incel threat should be treated as terrorism. The nature of any response is also discussed, though there is agreement around bolstering often stricken mental health services and engaging in outreach.
Alex Amend, the director of communications at Moonshot, said it was notable that incels identifying as UK-based did not only deride what they regarded as UK society’s “gynocentricism” and “progressive” politics, or share familiar extreme rightwing sentiment.
“UK users also discuss broader societal issues, and criticise the UK government, complain about their difficulties finding affordable housing and sustainable employment, as well as accessing mental health support through the NHS. Users regularly describe London as particularly isolating, and note that making friends as an adult there is challenging,” he said.
Amend suggested there should be investment in outreach, adding: “Creating alternative spaces for at-risk men and boys to share grievances in a healthy environment would also help, especially if those environments are connected to available mental health resources.”
Tim Squirrell, head of communications at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based extremism thinktank, warned against expanding Britain’s current counter-extremism and “securitising” the incel community.
“We need to recognise that many people, particularly young men, who essentially need some combination of social services, mental health support and other kinds of non-securitised intervention are instead being caught up by counter-terrorism programmes,” he added, echoing privately expressed concerns of some involved in the Prevent counter-extremism programme that they have become the safety net for cases who should otherwise have been picked up by underfunded mental health services.
Laura Bates, the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, described the understanding of the police about the potential incel threat as “patchy”, adding that she had carried out training with some forces to raise awareness.
The speed at which investigators said there was no link to terrorism was an indication of the way in which the threat was viewed at a high level, she said, before adding: “You cannot just quantify this in terms of, for example, the numbers of attacks alone.”
“My day to day interactions with young people would suggest the impact of this form of radicalisation when it comes to the treatment of teenage girls by their male peers is enormous,” said Bates, who called for greater resources and training for teachers.
“One optimistic thing is that more schools are reaching out for training now. There is more awareness and appreciation of the link between the epidemic of school sexual violence and factors such as incel radicalisation.”