Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

My Brother Is Becoming an Incel. How Do I Help Him?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Recently my brother and I got into an argument. I was talking about the new Zack Snyder’s Netflix film Army of the Dead and my brother mentioned he did not like said director. When I asked why he brought up that the YouTube channel Geeks and Gamers had done a stream where Zack had denounced them as “nazis” — those were my brothers words.

I stated as long as they had nothing to do with GamerGate then fair enough, whereupon my brother stated all the fallacies involved with it, basically blaming the women who got threatened and doxxed. I was trying to just avoid an argument when he then mentioned he did not like the term “incel” as that was what some of the people in GamerGate were being called.

The thing is that my brother is basically one.

To go back a ways, he has always not had any friends, even when he was young. In fact, after leaving school, I can’t think of a time he spent time with other people, and he’s had barely any female company. We live in the UK, and since he doesn’t work, he’s drawing benefits. He spends all day on his laptop watching YouTube videos. Has always been socially awkward, given that he is on the autism spectrum and he can’t regulate his emotions. 

He was what I’d call a social hand grenade; I’ve had him come out with me and my friends a few times, and it ended up him throwing a tantrum over something, making me look bad then having to get him out of the situation.

It doesn’t end there as any conversation I have with him — usually films or tv programs — ends up with him saying he doesn’t like the people involved with said films or tv shows due to their ” liberal lefty” politics. Now I just try not to talk to him anymore, which is a problem as, due to the pandemic, he lives with me .

I know it sounds awful, but he is my brother and I love him… though I am getting to the end of my tether with him. How do I talk to him or change his mind? I’d just like to look on life more positively.


A Brother at the End of His Tether

DEAR A BROTHER AT THE END OF HIS TETHER: You’re a really good brother, ABEHT, and I can imagine how frustrating this must be.

So, there’re two issues at play here. The first is that your brother is basically self-radicalizing. This has been an ongoing issue for a while, but this has started coming to a head in the last few years; people have been watching friends, family members, even romantic partners going from being reasonable, sensible individuals to alt-right, reality-denying s--theads, seemingly overnight. The algorithms that drive Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are almost perfectly designed to drown users in increasingly vitriolic and extreme content — content produced by hate groups and also by right-wing grifters who are happy to cater to the audience.

One of the joking-but-not-really comments about YouTube is that it doesn’t matter what you click on, you’re only two or three recommended videos away from content from Joe Rogan, Ben Shapiro, Jordan Peterson and other alt-lite gateways towards radicalization. This is especially true if you are even tangentially interested in traditionally “geeky” interests like video games or superhero movies. Channels like Geeks and Gamers, streamers like Ethan Van Scriver, even lawyers like Ty Beard have latched onto geek communities and stoked anger and resentment — primarily about women and minorities — in order to soak their viewers for cash and clout. As long as they can keep convincing their audience that The Enemy (again, women, people of color, LGBTQ folks) are Coming For Your Stuff, they’re able to continue milking them for GoFundMes, superchat and Twitch donations and Patreon subscriptions.

It’s significant that you mention GamerGate; GamerGate was, quite literally, the test market for this approach. Folks like Steve Bannon, Milo Yiannopoulos, Andrew Breitbart and others latched onto GamerGate in order to both radicalize them to the alt-right but make them useful idiots in support of Trump and literal neo-Nazis. But Trump’s fan-club haven’t been the only folks who’ve been stoking the fires of geeks in order to get them riled up and on their side; white supremacist groups have been infiltrating geek communities in order to recruit angry, isolated young men. Brandon Hole, who killed eight people at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis, was a Brony, for example, and the Brony community has been facing a Nazi problem for years. Vox Day, another avowed white supremacist, has been deeply involved with the ComicsGate community, using it both as a source for revenue but for spreading his ideology.

Incidentally, if you want to know more about how the alt-right and white supremacist groups infiltrate online subcultures to recruit people, I highly recommend Talia Levin’s “Cultural Warlords: My Journey into the Dark Web of White Supremacy”.

The issue at hand is that on social media — whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, TikTok or what-have-you — you’re not the audience; you’re the product. These sites want to keep their users on their sites for as long as possible, so as to show ads and collect your user data. The longer you’re on YouTube, for example, the more videos it can show you… and the more ads it can serve up. Your behavior likewise gets harvested in order to further refine the algorithms that they use to entice you to stay. Facebook, likewise, wants you to stay on Facebook to the exclusion of damn near anything else and uses algorithms to decide what you do and don’t see.

The way that they measure the success of the material they show you is via engagement — how much do you interact with the posts or videos that you see? Do you spend more time in this group or that one? Do you watch these videos most of the way through, and peace out sooner rather than later? Do you comment and like, share and subscribe and — importantly — watch the next video in your recommendations?

Because these social media juggernauts prioritize engagement, they end up prioritizing increasingly extreme content… content that is much more likely to get a response out of the audience. And that makes sense; after all, look at how much hue and cry there was over The Snyder Cut or the way that right-wingers lost their goddamn minds over Brie Larsen in Captain Marvel or Gina Carano getting kicked off The Mandalorian for being s--tty about LGBTQ people. That gets people angry, right-wingers subscribe and share it, left-wingers share it to dunk on it, people make response videos and so on.

This is the bread and butter for right-wing reactionary groups. Channels like Geek and Gamers produce content that’s designed to get people riled up — either with anger at the supposed SJWs who’re coming for their stuff, or to provoke responses from people who want to yell at them in comments and dunk on their rather weak commentary. Self-proclaimed “gurus” promise occult knowledge, whether it’s the cancer cure that “they” don’t want you to know about or how to interpret the verbal diarrhea on 8kun to learn more about the secret Satanic cabal that’s eating your babies and using imaginary drugs.

One of the unfortunate effects that comes when you have been mainlining this much hate is that… well, some of it tends to sink in. It’s a quirk of the human psyche that if somebody hears something often enough — especially if it’s said confidently enough — then you’re that much more likely to take it in. If you’ve ever heard a song on the radio that you hate at first, but keep hearing it over and over until you have to admit to yourself that it kinda slaps, then you’ve experienced this first hand.

And to make matters worse, groups like this will especially insist that you can’t listen to or trust people who disagree; they are already preying on a frequently isolated and lonely demographic, and focus on emphasizing that their isolation is the fault of others. They are the only ones who will understand you or respect you or who get what you’re going through. They are the only ones who you can rely on. Everyone else just doesn’t get it… or worse, is actively laughing at you.

I’m sure you can see how enticing this can be to a young man who’s already mostly housebound, with few to no friends or relationships outside of immediate family.

Which brings us to the second problem: your brother’s isolation. You mention that he’s autistic and has issues with things like emotional regulation, which makes it harder for him to be social. I have to wonder if part of the reason why he’s a “social hand grenade” as you put it is because of how overwhelming things can be for an autistic person. A lot of times, what can look like an autistic person having a fit or throwing a tantrum is actually a meltdown — an intense response, often to the point of losing control, to being sensory or emotional overload.

(Just for the record: after a fair amount of research, I’m still not entirely sure if meltdown is the accepted term or if it’s considered insulting by autistic people. It’s currently in use in most of the medical and psychological literature I consulted, but I’ll edit this if I’m wrong.)

That tantrum you mention that he threw when you took him out with friends might well have been less a tantrum and more a reaction to overwhelming sensory input or anxiety. If you took him to the pub with your friends, the noise, the lights, the crowds, even the smoke or just plain social anxiety could have been too much for him and triggered this.  And I want to be clear: you were trying to help him as best you could, and you were coming to this with the best of intentions. Unfortunately, you may have inadvertently put him in a situation that would’ve been a living nightmare for an autistic person.

Trying to socialize the way you or other allistic people do may not be feasible for your brother, at least not right now. I’m not surprised he’s become so isolated. It can be hard for folks like your brother to navigate a world that can be hostile to autistic people, especially considering how many therapies for autistic folks are unhelpful at best or torture at worst.

But that same isolation is not only what makes him a prime target for right-wing s--theads and the incel community, but also what makes it harder for him to leave those groups. One of the ways that people leave the incel community, for example, is by going out and interacting with the world, getting to know people as people, instead of the one-dimensional fictions that get tossed around on the boards. It’s much harder to buy into the idea of Chads and Stacies — or predatory trans people or vitriolic SJWs or whatever other boogiemen are being propped up as The Enemy — when you actually talk to them, hang out with them and get to know them.

So what do you do to help your brother?

Well if I’m perfectly honest, the best first step would be cutting off the source if at all possible. For all that during the election, people joked about visiting their older relatives and using the parental controls on TVs to block Fox News, OANN and the like… that’s actually not a bad idea in and of itself.

That having been said: it sounds like your brother is a legal adult and, while he has issues regarding emotional regulation and can’t hold down a job, he’s hardly intellectually disabled. As such, I’m really hesitant to seriously suggest muting or blocking channels. Yes, limiting access to GamerGate, ComicsGate and other right-wing associated channels on YouTube would go a long way towards changing things… but you’re also not his caregiver or legal guardian. Making decisions about what another adult is or isn’t allowed to watch on their own gets into seriously dicey territory and frankly I’m not comfortable saying that this is a viable option.

However, leaving the question of blocking those channels aside, limiting the time he spends watching them is a good idea, especially if you can provide alternative options. Helping him find other ways to occupy his time would be ideal. Part of the reason why he’s spending all of his time on YouTube is because he’s so isolated and stays at home. By helping get him out in the world — in ways that are less traumatizing or overwhelming to him — you take up time that he would spend on his laptop or tablet. When you’re not constantly drowning in s--t and have a few moments to think that aren’t dominated by Ethan Van Scriver yelling about Kelly Marie Tran, then you’re much more likely start to step away from it. After all, part of what these groups rely on is constant reinforcement. Cutting off that reinforcement gives you an opportunity to push back against the toxic ideas they’ve been spreading.

One of the best things you could do, especially if you want to help him socialize, would be to find local support groups for autistic people — ones who actually have autistic people running them, not just groups like Autism Speaks. These organizations can be a great resource for working on being more social and being able to go out and about and handle potential overwhelming situations… without resorting to things like ABA therapy.

Helping him find and build a social circle — one that isn’t predicated on online groups — will help ease his isolation, help build a sense of connection and community and drain some of the anger and resentment that these groups rely on.

(And for my readers: if you’re autistic, especially you reside in the the UK, I want to invite you to share your advice, experiences and resources in the comments.)

The next step is to engage with your brother a bit more. Right now, you avoid talking to him about much because it always ends in fights about so and so’s “lefty” politics… but that’s actually an opportunity to start to break the hold that these groups have on him. The mistake that a lot of folks make when dealing with people that they’re trying to convince is that they come at the conversation from a place of “I’m right, you’re wrong and you’re an idiot for believing in this, now let me correct you.” What’s far more effective is to start by building rapport with the person you’re trying to persuade. Coming to it from a place of “we’re both intelligent, reasonable people, we both have valuable and important insights” means that the person you’re trying to persuade is far less likely immediately put up their shields. By starting from there and asking your brother to explain, in his own words, just what he means, you’re in a better position to start to affect change.

The key here is to realize that you aren’t going to change their mind by debate; arguing with someone just tends to make them double down on what they already believe. What you’re looking to do is gently encourage him to notice the flaws in his own logic and arguments. Asking him to explain, saying things like “wait, but if that’s the case, then why…” or “what would they get out of this?” may get him going in Patrick-Starfish-esque circles, but it means that it’s much easier to plant seeds of doubt. Those seeds may not bloom right away — that takes time — but they do help create moments where he may start to question some of the assumptions and beliefs he’s bought into.

You can’t force someone to change their mind, nor can you reason them out of it. But by getting them to question their own beliefs, you help them change their own minds.

Finally, as you’re asking him to explain his beliefs or positions, offer some alternatives. Having counter-examples and counter-arguments can be incredibly helpful for shifting people away from groups like the incel community or the alt-right… especially if they can provide an example of someone who’s supposedly a “liberal lefty” but isn’t the stereotype they’re told to believe in. And since it’s helpful to do so in their own language, so to speak, then focusing on YouTubers can be a good starting point.

While I’m not big on a lot of “breadtube”, there’re certain YouTubers who I’ve found have been very good at breaking down arguments and false narratives in ways that even folks who’re coming into this skeptically can accept. Natalie Wynn — who records videos as ContraPoints — is very good at debunking common right-wing talking points and beliefs. Her videos on incels and masculinity, for example, have been incredibly good at pulling people back from the brink. I’d also recommend The 1 Janitor, Shaun and BigJoel as folks who are great at discussing and debunking alt-right arguments without talking down or putting people immediately on the defensive.

This is an area where “we both are reasonable people” can come in handy; telling your brother that hey, you listened to him, now it’s only fair that he listens to you can help make easier for you to get him to watch the videos. In fact, offering to watch them together may help.

Now again, I have to stress: this is a slow and gradual process, one that can take a lot of time to encourage him to change. And I’m going to be honest: sometimes that change never comes. Some people will cling to their isolation and hate, for a lot of reasons, including out of a sense of shame or fear. But the fact that you clearly love and care for your brother will hopefully help make it easier for you to at least plant those seeds and guide him towards changing for the better.

Good luck.

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