Andrew Tate, a divisive social media personality and former professional kickboxer, was detained in Romania in late December on charges of human trafficking and rape, according to local media reports.
Tate, a British-U.S. citizen who previously was banned from various social media platforms for expressing misogynistic views and hate speech, was reportedly detained along with his brother Tristan in the Ilfov area north of Romania’s capital, Bucharest.
His arrest has sparked important conversations surrounding public hate speech, social media’s influence on society, and the interactions between digital technology and gender violence.
How Tate cultivated a popular platform for hate
Moira Aikenhead is a limited-term assistant professor at the University of Victoria Faculty of Law and she specializes in technology-facilitated gender violence.
Tate cultivated a big online following and Aikenhead says it is about more than just hate towards women.
“He’s a self-described misogynist. Misogyny and degrading women is really central to who he is and his message,” she said.
“However, it’s also sort of mixed in with other things. He’s also attempting to sell a lifestyle to people who feel disenfranchised or that the world has sort of wronged them.
“Vulnerable, often very young men, I understand, make up a large segment of his audience.”
Aikenhead says in a time where there is a lot of social disruption, extreme messages gain a lot of popularity.
“People had a lot of strong responses to (the COVID-19 pandemic) and the government response to that,” she said.
“We have a tanking economy. And this is really a situation where a lot of people are struggling right now.
“Whether it’s extreme political views or misogyny or racism. People want to hear that there’s an easy solution to these issues or understand that there is a group that they can feel superior to or exert power over.”
And in today’s society, it is easier than ever for people to become “influencers” on social media thanks to apps like TikTok.
“If you look at it and the simplest form here is just your seven seconds of Tik Tok … and that person becomes an influencer,” Jay Greenfeld, Winnipeg Clinical Psychologist, says.
“As soon as these kids have access to this kind of stuff, they’re influenced by it in seconds. And then it just gets worse because that’s what their friends are doing.”
‘Toxic’ masculinity in society and media
Tate’s messaging centered on the idea that men need to be in their true rawest form, which he described as “alpha,” as he believes men have gotten too soft.
Terms like “toxic” masculinity have gained more traction over the years.
“What ends up becoming more of a challenge is men being caught in terms of the role they think they need to be playing and the role that they are playing and the role that they could potentially be playing,” says Greenfeld.
“Men may have played a traditional role of the doer, the fixer, the individual who has to be accomplishing something … versus the supportive role, the softer role, the individual who can express more of their feelings as opposed to repressing them into more of a functional role.”
Greenfeld says toxic masculinity comes from how people feel masculinity needs to be presented.
“Believing they need to look a certain way. They need to behave a certain way. They need to eat a certain way. They need to only watch certain movies.”
And Aikenhead says Tate did a good job of exploiting that by selling a brand to men.
“You can be rich and powerful like me if you follow my rules and the way that I view the world,” she says.
“And also, hey, you are superior to women and the mainstream government, media, everything is trying to actively hold you down and make you not remember that you are more powerful than women.”
Men need to accept that it is okay to struggle and to express those struggles and to be a support for others who may be struggling, Greenfeld says.
“Instead of hiding all that, repressing all that, and then relying on either social media or various aspects of the internet to be their gateway when it might not actually represent how they feel and who they actually are,” Greenfeld said.
“Men don’t need to be soft. Men need to be more of that alpha male. If that was the case, then things would have worked how they did 60 years ago.”
Greenfeld says things have changed significantly for a reason.
“So that there’s more equality and there’s a better understanding of how other people operate as opposed to, ‘I need to do it like this because that’s what my gender says.'”
Dangers of hateful influence
Tate’s criminal allegations have contributed to the conversation over the dangers of social media and its influence on society.
“He’s not someone who is merely pandering to an audience. He’s clearly someone who is a misogynist, who does hate women. And that’s evidenced both by his message and by his actions,” Aikenhead says.
“There is absolutely a potential for real-world violence as a result. And there are huge social consequences when these types of behaviors and viewpoints really escalate and gain more widespread popularity.”
Aikenhead says there shouldn’t be any division drawn between what has gained popularity online and the real-world repercussions.
“We know that a lot of people who engage in the sort of extreme online subgroups like the Incel movement can and have led to real-world deadly consequences in Canada and elsewhere.”
Tate’s brand of misogyny is nothing new, according to Aikenhead.
“Things that he can play off as jokes, like women should stay in the kitchen. But then interspersed with the actual telling of instances of violence and promoting real subjugation of women,” Aikenhead says.
“So his message is not new. What is new is his ability to reach an absolutely massive, massive platform. And he was able to do so because there’s already this group of people who hold this level of extreme views, and they were just waiting for someone who was speaking to them.”
Online content can be influential without consumers even recognizing it — its influence has only gotten larger over the last couple of years, Greenfeld says.
“Things are being accessed for us. And then we’re being told what to watch, are being told what to see because it’s coming at us any time we turn on our computer.”
What can be done about extreme online content?
The social media algorithms are designed to promote the most extreme and the most divisive content, according to Aikenhead.
“And Andrew Tate understood that very well and sort of asked his followers to create and share his more extreme viewpoints and divisive content,” she says.
“Things that make people angry and get people talking and yelling at each other is what gets promoted. And at the same time, individuals get fed more and more extreme content, and they also see other people engaging with that.”
Aikenhead believes the way to stop messaging like Tate’s is to regulate social media platforms and ensure the algorithms aren’t designed in a profit-maximizing way to promote what is getting clicks and engagement.
“You cannot have algorithms that are completely free of any ethics and just promote the most extreme content to as many people as possible,“ she said.
Meanwhile, Greenfeld says it is up to society as a whole to put a stop to this kind of messaging by refusing to entertain or engage with it.
“So instead of sitting there saying, I can’t believe society is doing what it’s doing, I can’t believe we have access to what we have. And I can’t believe a guy like that would evolve into something like this,” he says.
“You could also say, ‘wait a second, what can we do differently here so that people feel more in control of who they are and the choices that they’re making?’
“As soon as you start typing it online, your server is now hooked.”
-With files from the Associated Press