Recent public debate on gender identification has provided new alternatives to the traditional binary divergent titles of “man and woman”. Some contributors to this discussion have proposed a more regressive position regarding gender equity and identity awareness, instead choosing to mock online discussion by relabeling their own gender as different forms of military hardware (“attack helicopters”). The describing characteristics of these individuals are unclear. Using a sample of respondents (N=20) to the 2016 Australian Sex Survey, we explore some key demographics of those identifying as inanimate objects of modern warfare, and those simply rejecting the possibility of non-binary alternatives. Our archetype analysis delineates participant characteristics into two subpopulations of “Incel” and “Troll”, and identifies key differences in their demographics, personality traits and online behaviours. On average, the study population presents as single Caucasian males, high school educated, with average to low incomes, and some degree of non-heterosexual attraction. While cyber aggression and trolling are well researched areas, further qualitative and quantitative research is warranted into new growing sub-populations such as Incels, and how they differ from other individuals and groups online.
Materials and method
Discussion and conclusion
Since the advent of Internet chat rooms, right up to contemporary social networking sites like Facebook and Instagram, gender or sex labelling has been an integral part of online experiences and behaviours. Whether online or off-line, labelling can deliver positive and negative effects for the individual and the wider community. Labelling is central to the binary discourse, but it is also important as a form of identity construction in practise, as it allows individuals to more accurately articulate their gender (Oakley, 2016). Through this last decade, policy, industry and social networks have recognised and incorporated a myriad of new non-binary titles in practice. However, not all online communities and their participants have welcomed this shift (Whyte, et al., 2018). Google Trends state the term “attack helicopter” (as a parodied gender classification) began to garner online interest primarily after a post on micro-blogging platform Reddit went viral in March 2014 (Guuse, 2014). The term quickly spread into the broader social justice debate online at the time and was used by conservative right-wing ideologists and MRAs (Men’s Rights Activists) to heckle and mock the evolving gender identity discussion. This was particularly so at a time when the Internet was saturated with a coalescence of misogynist and racist abuse stemming from the then emerging Gamergate saga (Salter, 2018).
Trolling, cyber-aggression, and general anti-social behaviour on the Internet is nothing new. Online trolling has been defined as repetitive harmful behaviour, counter to the terms and conditions of the platforms used (Shachaf and Hara, 2010). Trolls’ behaviour focuses primarily on posting unconstructive or offensive commentaries, with the primary objective of inciting arguments and debate (Binns, 2012; Bishop, 2014). Trolls can be motivated by boredom, attention seeking, and at times, revenge; and their online behaviour is facilitated by anonymity and their perception of the Internet as an entertainment venue (Shachaf and Hara, 2010).
Research also demonstrates a those identifying as male are significantly more likely to ‘troll’ (Howard, et al., 2019). Harassment, abuse, hostility, and flaming are all negative or anti-social behaviours stemming from such cyber-aggression (Wright, 2020). Harassment behaviours online can also be similar to their off-line equivalent that aggravates crime, bar the anonymity the perpetrator holds (Barak, 2005; Coleman, 2015).
“Incels” are a group of men who self-identify as involuntarily celibate. Largely disorganised, they hold a noisy online presence and interact with each other on social media platforms online. The small sect attracted attention via association with a disproportionate number of mass violence events, including college shootings and vehicular murders. The Incel ideology expresses unrealised entitlement: Incels believe they are entitled to sex, but that this entitlement is not forthcoming as they are victims of women and society (Srinivasan, 2018). They blame feminism for their celibacy, believing feminism erodes the natural superiority they hold men should possess over women; women’s general inferiority leading them toward immoral social climbing which disadvantages unattractive men; and, society’s preoccupation with social status and attractiveness, features they feel that they lack (Baele, et al., 2019).
Almost nothing has been captured regarding the demographic characteristics of Incels, but some insights can be gained via a small amount of empirical work analysing linguistic content in their social media posts. Incels frequently post about their ugliness and low social worth, especially in terms of their low earning capacity compared with other, more sexually popular men (Farrell, et al., 2019). From this we may infer that Incels are in the lower socio-economic tiers of society. Psychologically, they appear to have low self-esteem and are highly preoccupied with social stratification (Baele, et al., 2019), arguing that the kind of masculinity they embody is marginalized by society and persecuted. Indeed, victimhood and a lack of personal agency are core components of the subculture, such that Incels experience their difficult lives as due to intractable circumstances beyond their control, like genetic inferiority (Baele, et al., 2019). Many Incel posts express support for sexual and physical violence, racism, and homophobia, with strong notes of misogyny and anti-feminism expressed across multiple Incel channels (Farrell, et al., 2019).
Because gender and societal expectations influence and shape behaviour in both off-line and online worlds, understanding what motivates certain individuals or groups towards interpersonal conflict is crucial in ensuring equitable outcomes for all in cyber domains. While those who reject non-binary gender titles online may not technically be defined as trolls or Incels, it is clear such cyber rhetoric is hostile and anti-social. Using a qualitative sample of respondents (N=20) to the 2016 Australian Sex Survey, this study explores key traits, behaviours, and the demographic characteristics of those who choose to gender identify as inanimate objects of modern warfare, or simply reject the possibility of non-binary alternatives by engaging in anti-social or non-inclusive gender perpetuations in cyber settings. This study seeks to provide the first qualitative archetype description and differentiation between trolls and Incel’s based on their cyber behaviour, in relation to the online non-binary gender debate.
Materials and method
The data used in this study was collected during the national online “Australian Sex Survey”, advertised to the Australian general public between 25 July and 19 September 2016. Some data used in the study has been analysed for previous unrelated quantitative research (Whyte, et al., 2019a, 2019b, 2018). Participation in the survey was incentivised, with three lucky prize draws totalling approximately AUD$1,500 worth of cash and prizes donated by industry partners Adultmatchmaker.com, and its affiliated online dating Web sites, the Eros Association, Australian Sex Party, Max Black, and Giga Pty Ltd. All research was conducted in accordance with Queensland University of Technology (QUT) human research ethics on clearance approval number 1600000221.
Participants were asked a range of demographic questions. More specifically in relation to gender, survey participants were offered the ability to identify with one of 33 different gender options (see Appendix). They were also offered a free text response option to self-report an alternative gender title and or comment:
“If you would like to describe your gender in your own words please feel free to in the text box below” ... .
Data for this study was selected based on the responses provided in this free form response options. For the purposes of this study, researchers included participants who provided responses signalling a position on gender descriptions that were either non-inclusive, polarising, offensive, sarcastic, or comedic (see Table 1).
Table 1: Qualitative gender response. 1. Attack Helicopter 2. Leopard Tank 3. Attack Helicopter 4. Why are there so many f**king options ... 5. Apache Helicopter 6. I feel more like a cupboard in the mornings and a coffee table on the afternoonsite. Nothing cheap, more like expensive oak wood furniture 7. A chair 8. Fucking ridiculous question 9. A Rubber Ball 10. Attack Helicopter 11. I believe there are only two genders. Male and female. The rest is political correctness on steroids. Maybe 0.1 percent of the general population are transgender, but seeing all those “boxes” makes me laugh. Pick a sex already! 12. fuck you i’m a dragon 13. I have 14 penises sprouting from my forehead, but each one has a mini-vagina at the tip, and I am delusional and imagine that I am from the Poltroon Galaxy where every living being is a gender we call “XQJZRRRRRrrrpp!!!” which you must address me by (AND pronounce correctly) else I will throw a tantrum and pout and you will have to go to jail for the hate crime of disrespecting my schizophrenic hallucinations. 14. A straight male born as a male and will die as a fuckin male. 15. Man who grew an Ovary on one of his testicles! 16. Only 2 biological genders, enough whit this stupid shit, gender is not a social construct 17. Is this Tumblr? Are you fucking kidding mate? “Gender Non-Conformig” Lol. 18. There are only two fucking genders 19. Apache Attack helicopter 20. What in the fuck am I looking at?
All 20 qualitative responses are provided in Table 1. Of the 20 participants included in this study 19 identified their biological sex as Male (with one “I do not wish to answer”). Nineteen participants provided their year of birth, with an age range of 20 to 54 years old, a mean of 31.26 years, SD 10.45 years and median of 29 years. Only two of the 20 survey respondents were in any form of relationship (both de facto), with 12 identifying as single, one divorced, one widowed, one separated, and three responding as “other”. Sixteen of the respondents had no offspring, three had one child, and one respondent stated they had seven children. Of the 14 who provided their city of residence, 50 percent (7) lived in Australian capital cities. Seventeen respondents answered the question relating to ethnicity, and all 17 identified as Caucasian. Participants sexually identified as heterosexual (11), bisexual (2), and other (7).
On scales of 0–100 18 participants self-rated their happiness with a mean score of 67.17, and a SD of 27.35 and self-rated their general health with a mean score of 64.71 and a SD of 26.11. On our Kinsey scale question, three participants chose not to answer, 12 stated sexual attraction exclusively towards the opposite sex, and four stated varying levels of opposite sex attraction. Of the 17 participants who provided information on their current level of education, six had completed an undergraduate or higher accreditation of tertiary education. Only 13 respondents provided information on their annual income, with the majority (N=10) making less than AUD$60,000 per annum. In their qualitative free form gender responses 25 percent (5) of the 20 respondents specifically stated they were an attack helicopter, while 35 percent (7) also used the profanity “fuck” in some way in their description. The Mini-marker Big 5 personality traits scores for the sample are provided in Table 2.
Table 2: Big 5 personality traits. N Mean SD Min Max Extroversion 15 4.675 0.994 3.250 7 Agreeableness 15 5.124 0.932 3.571 7 Conscientiousness 15 4.905 0.842 3.571 7 Emotional stability 15 5.629 0.603 4.714 7 Opennness 15 4.914 1.606 1.286 7
Two key archetypes were grouped together by exploring the informational cues provided following a summative content analysis procedure. The purpose is to interpret the data by categorising and comparing meaning (Hsieh and Shannon, 2005) via messages that are associated with derision of non-binary gender identity. The descriptive outcome of this form of analysis is a means to study participants in an unobtrusive and non-reactive manner (Babbie, 2015).
Archetypes are used to understand the conscious and unconscious interactions of the participants in relation to their personality. Jungian archetypes and social science derivatives alike provide that those used in consumer research (Mark and Pearson, 2001), are “self-portraits of the instincts” (Schlarb, 2008). Consumer research has used archetype analysis in brand building (Caldwell, et al., 2010) and behaviourally focused segmentation analysis (Godwin, et al., 2016; Pera, et al., 2016).
A central tenant to archetype development, and specifically relevant to this analysis, is that all humans exhibit shadow characteristics, but the degree individuals are conscious of these shadows dictate individual variance (Morris and Schmolze, 2006). Shadow characteristics are unpleasant qualities or dark personality traits that humans wish to hide (Jung, 1953). Our participant analysis uses Mark and Pearson’s adaptation of archetypes (Mark and Pearson, 2001). This adaption views individual actions as intrinsically linked to deep motivations to belong, seek mastery and independence in the face of risk. Figure 1 (adapted from Mark and Pearson, 2001) illustrates the framework the archetypes are devised from. Core components of motivation are listed on the axis — an inverse relationship occurs. For some, there is a stronger need for social connectivity in comparison to others that seek individual self-actualisation. On the vertical axis, stability and control are positioned against mastery and risk.
Archetype 1: Jester, the Laughing Clown (The Troll)
In this archetype the Jester characteristics are dominant. Participants use parody and absurdity to highlight the spirit of disorder they seek in the face of bureaucracy. The name, The Laughing Clown, is given to accentuate the shadow behaviours of the participants, such as the void of qualified information in many of the categories of the survey aside from the gender expression self-response. Here, deviance is demonstrated, as the respondents either drop from the survey, or demonstrate a form of response bias. The pattern identified in the verbatim responses are categorised as refusal, anger, absurdity, and parody. Some examples below:
“I feel more like a cupboard in the mornings and a coffee table on(sp) the afternoon. Nothing cheap, more like expensive oak wood furniture.” — Respondent 6
Parody and anger:
“I have 14 penises sprouting from my forehead, but each one has a mini-vagina at the tip, and I am delusional and imagine that I am from the Poltroon Galaxy where every living being is a gender we call ‘XQJZRRRRRRRRrrrrppp!!!!’ which you must address me by (AND pronounce correctly) else I will throw a tantrum and pout and you will have to go to jail for the hate crime of disrespecting my schizophrenic hallucinations.” — Respondent 13
The key feature delineating The Laughing Clown in our sample is the call of boredom — participation despite the lack of engagement. This is aligned with “The Jesters” politics to be an anarchist (Mark and Pearson, 2001). In the gender expression verbatim, there is a strong shadow characteristic that is self-indulgent, irresponsible and mean.
The core Jester/Laughing Clown characteristic is “To live in the moment” through a strategy of play, making jokes and being funny — which requires being socially connected to others in order to entertain. Essentially the Jester is hedonistic. Figure 1 illustrates the matrix of motivation to explain the drivers of the archetype, the Jester/Laughing Clown sits closely to belongingness. The Jester/Laughing Clown demonstrates their shadowed characteristics of seeking to gain a laugh, regardless of the expense.
Figure 1: Revised framework for two male archetypes.
Archetype 2: The Ruler, The Defensive Dictator (The Incel)
Big Five personality dimensions are more accentuated in the development of this second archetype. Participants within this archetype self-report high scores (>4 in a 7-point Likert scale) to undesirable characteristics, including envy, jealousy, withdrawal, and selfishness. These individuals are low in openness and high in neuroticism (Saucier, 1994). The Ruler archetype, and our label of The Defensive Dictator, is developed within a seal of personality factors, participants self-described sexual orientation (heterosexual or other), and gender expression verbatim themed as parody, refusal, or rejection and anger. The archetype is complex, and self-response of sexual orientation becomes a defining feature (a darker shadow). Whilst the traditional archetype description of The Ruler confers ideas of control, mastery and success, the negative aspects of such goals focus on regressive behaviours.
In this analysis, The Defensive Dictator’ s need for control and order are related to their personality characteristics of jealousy, envy, being withdrawn, and selfishness. Defensive Dictators self-report their sexual orientation as heterosexual but there is a strong theme of feeling threatened in their self-expressed gender identity. The need for stability and control under any circumstance is typically paramount for the The Ruler. The participant analysis highlights sex and gender as a constant, binary coding of human existence. The two quotes below highlight the need for predictability when it comes to customs and habits, in particular, the notion that gender is biologically determined from birth. For these participants, the social environment has changed, while their perspectives have not. The Ruler’ s core characteristic of a need for control has become a sense of fear that they could be, or are in some way, controlled by external forces, leading to The Defensive Dictator.
For example, they illustrate:
Rejection of control:
“Only two biological genders, enough whit [sic] this stupid shit, gender is not a social construct.” — Respondent 16
Mastery under threat:
“A straight male born as a male and will die as a male” — Respondent 14
Being that archetypes can be layered by shadows (Yakushko, 2016), exploration of the final themes of this archetype demonstrate a group of participants where threat of diminishing authority permeates. Interestingly, for this deeper shadow group, the participants state their gender identity as ‘other’. The analysis highlights this being in contradiction with their staunch statements in the gender verbatim. One explanation for why these participants wouldn’t state their gender identity as binary, may be that this refusal or ‘other’ is a statement of the unconscious, or as Jung called it, anima and animus (Jung, 1953).
The unconscious ambiguity of not outwardly stating a heteronormative position of gender identification is a position of confusion, and a personal lack of order, in terms of what it means to be masculine. When a lack of order is experienced by shadow Rulers, “tyrannical and manipulative behaviours” ensue . Our analysis proposes such occurrence for The Defensive Dictators, who state their gender identification as “Attack Helicopters”. A sense of control has been removed, and in an attempt to regain some level of power, the imagery of gender becomes represented through military aggression or supremacy — quite possibly the most frightening show of force for many. Power is everything, is a motto for The Ruler archetype (Mark and Pearson, 2001), and for the Defensive Dictator to remain relevant in the face of diminishing power, gender must be masculinised through weaponization.
Discussion and conclusion
Our population on average presents as majority single Caucasian male, average to low income, high school educated, and some level of non-heterosexual attraction. While society does not provide any clearly defined descriptors for trolls, average to low income is a demographic consistent with the self-descriptors of the Incel culture. What is unique about our archetype analysis is the ability to view our quantitative data in conjunction with these self-descriptions. Archetypes are time-withstanding, and propose a valid, yet novel, way to categorise both individual and groups behaviours. Our analysis demonstrates that certain trolling behaviours have different motivations in the context of the online gender debate. Some of our sample purely seek disruption and the banal (The Laughing Clown — the Troll), not wishing to provide any clear or specific information about themselves. Whereas others have a more contrived motivation, a sense of lost power and structure losing predictability (The Defensive Dictators — the Incel).
The greatest strength of the current work is the provision of a demographic insight into the Incel community, for which no explicit published literature exists. In addition, the Defensive Dictator identity we propose here, provides interesting avenues for future work understanding the Incel sub-culture. It is consistent with Incels’ preoccupation with social hierarchy and social stratification, and their advocacy of violence as a means to redistribute sexual resources. The emotional aspects we identify — envy, jealousy, withdrawal and selfishness, rejection, and anger — are mirrored in the Incels’ anger at society and women, as is the strong theme of feeling threatened by, and being without place, in society. It further provides an interesting context for the Incels’ general preoccupation with a past, “golden age”, that characterises much of the MRA (Baele, et al., 2019). In this golden age, monogamy was the rule, adultery was prohibited, men and women married early, and women were subordinated to the family sphere. The dictatorial element of this archetype reflects this preoccupation with male superiority, and the defensive element reflects an experience of lost rights and unmet dues.
The reference of Attack Helicopter instigated by Gusse in 2014 is in part reminiscent of the rise of vigilante hackers like Phineas Fisher. Though Hackers like Fisher differ in that their experimental flirtations on the Internet may be more broadly perceived in a positive was for a specific social good (Coleman, 2015), whereas Trolls and Incels flirt with social change through at times unpalatable antagonistic commentary. Further, trolls more generally do not face prosecution for their actions in the way that hackers do. And as such, the argument between anonymity for value-in-action and anonymity to avoid attribution remains unclear (Nissenbaum, 1999).
The researchers acknowledge limitations to the current study. Key motivators for online anti-social behaviour are often nuanced and complex. While the current study explores just a single variable of expression (gender identification), future research would do well to incorporate multiple points of qualitative expression from survey participants. Secondly, it is unclear if the participant’s responses supplied in this study are accurate representations of the participants’ demographics. It would not be unreasonable to assume that participants who choose to express and engage in such objectionable online behaviours may not provide completely factual responses to all stimuli. That said, for several respondents, and on several occasions, the responses provided were “I do not wish to answer”, which may imply participants were somewhat guarded during the survey and generally responded honestly.
Our archetype analysis delineates participant characteristics into two unique subpopulations of “Incel” and “Troll”, and identifies key differences in demographics, personality traits and online behaviours. While cyber aggression and trolling are well researched areas, further qualitative and quantitative research is warranted into growing new sub-populations such as Incels, and how they differ from other individuals and groups online.
About the authors
Khandis Blake is a Lecturer in the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne.
Megan Godwin is a Ph.D. student at the Centre for Behavioural Economics, Society & Technology (BEST) at the Queensland University of Technology.
Stephen Whyte is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Behavioural Economics in the School of Economics & Finance at the Queensland University of Technology.
Send comments to: sg [dot] whyte [at] qut [dot] edu [dot] au
The authors would like to thank James Templeman & Mia Uren at Adultmatchmaker.com.au and its affiliated online dating Web sites, Rachel Payne at Eros Association, the Australian Sex Party, Max Black, and Giga Pty Ltd. for all their assistance.
No competing commercial or financial interests exist.
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Table A1: List of possible gender identification terms. Gender terms Agender Androgyne Androgyny Bigender Cis female Cis male Cisgender Demiboy Demigender Demigirl Female to male Gender non-conforming Genderfluid Genderqueer Intergender Intersex Male to female Man Non-binary No gender Pangender Poligender Third gender Trans man Trans woman Trans person Transexual Transgender man Transgender woman Trigender Woman
Received 5 April 2020; revised 12 May 2020; revised 28 June 2020; accepted 8 July 2020.
Copyright © 2020, Khandis Blake, Megan Godwin, and Stephen Whyte. All Rights Reserved.
“I sexually identify as an Attack Helicopter”: Incels, trolls, and non-binary gender politics online
by Khandis Blake, Megan Godwin, and Stephen Whyte.
First Monday, Volume 25, Number 9 - 7 September 2020