“If you put yourself in a position to be r*p*d you must bear some responsibility.” This is the quote from the most trending figure on the majority of global social media platforms, attracting young audiences from across the globe. So how did we get here? And how can we understand and approach the online space with young people in 2023?

The online space in 2023

Andrew Tate currently sits in custody in Romania under threats of human trafficking and rape. So who is this controversial figure and how can we understand him as a part of the broader online space?

To begin it must be bluntly clarified that the online space in 2023 is a complex minefield for those with young people in their lives. Platforms, content, online games and influencers continually change, leaving adults struggling to keep track of what young people are engaging with online or what current popular rhetoric positive or negative may be taking hold. For example, a 2014/15 Pew research survey found that: “the share of teens who say they use Facebook/Meta, a dominant social media platform among teens, has plummeted from 71% then to 32% today.”  Instead, platforms like YouTube, TikTok and Instagram have taken centre stage. The focus of TikTok, YouTube Shorts and Instagram Reels is short form captivating and engaging video content. While the focus of YouTube more broadly falls on attractive and gripping visual/video content that is generally (although not necessarily) 10 minutes or under in length. This style of content and platform setup has led to the rise of certain types of online figures that the majority of young people follow, engage with or at the very minimum are aware of. Most of these figures capitalise on the style of social media platforms by using video ideas, captivating format and extremes that they know will get attention and views, fine-tuned with algorithm insights. The likes of ‘Mr Beast’ posting videos such as ‘last to leave the circle wins $500,000’ and The Sidemen posting ‘Sidemen have 5 minutes to spend $100,000’. These clickbait [1] titles, video styles and ideas are visually appealing and make use of the short video templates the platforms provide, keeping viewers constantly, invested and coming back for more. This, however, has also led to the rise of polarising, controversial figures.

[1] Clickbait typically refers to the practice of writing sensationalized or misleading headlines in order to attract clicks on a piece of content. It often relies on exaggerating claims or leaving out key information in order to encourage traffic.

Image: An example of clickbait style video titles and thumbnails

Polarising figures

Polarising figures in the modern online space have become all too common, drawing young people and often specifically young men in with controversial ideas, statements, and arguments. These short videos where figures discuss with certainty the truth of their views to an audience of impressionable, young people with little knowledge of the issue. It is these figures that have captivated young people globally and acted as role models to an entire digital generation. Take the case of Andrew Tate, 35, from Britain. The most trending man on the internet, a former kickboxer turned influencer/lifestyle coach living an insanely rich lifestyle. He has until recently been banned from the majority of social media platforms, recently converted to Islam and gained 1 million followers in the space of 24 hours after being unbanned from Twitter. A polarising and complex figure to put it simply. He has become largely well known for his outrageous quotes and views on women, people suffering from depression and anyone who isn’t living some sort of testosterone fuelled ‘alpha male’ wolf of wall street type lifestyle. Another famous polarising individual is psychologist Jordan Peterson, who focuses on psychological advice, with the occasional dabbles in far-right politics and controversial topics. Again, another man who gained his following largely from a controversial incident. Peterson, 60 years old, a Canadian university professor at the time, was the focus of a viral video in which he debated protesting students on transexual rights and pronouns.

This rhetoric is what makes these figures along with others so successful. In reality however, it is a lot deeper than this.

Why are these figures so attractive and problematic for young people?

The main source of attraction is often similar, regardless of the theme of the content. Whether it be people believing questionable conspiracy theories, engaging with radical spaces such as incels. Idolising polarising figures or believing/accepting ideas on the internet that generally lack sufficient evidence in search for their answers. It ultimately comes down to the way in which the information is presented. Such figures often use the free speech debate to defend their position, platform, and gain supporters. For example, when banned or criticised for their comments and/or actions they will immediately fall into a pattern of positioning themselves as a proponent of the libertarian/free speech debate. While this debate is an extremely important one, especially in the digital era, it is not one that should be used to erode accountability for problematic viewpoints and/or actions. This has been the consistent case with polarising figures, with some fairly but many unfairly using the political debate to defend themselves. Further to this, figures such as Tate and others present dangerous extremist ideas and information wedged in between motivational quotes and legitimate concerns. This means that young people who are often vulnerable and impressionable believe some of what is said or can relate to a legitimate grievance and thus get attracted to the figure’s ideas generally, including some of the questionable views and ideas pushed out. Young people are ultimately presented these views online without the benefit of developing critical thinking skills and a view of the other side of the debate. As a result, they often lack the skills and balanced insight to challenge all the information that they are absorbing.

This method of mixing contentious ideas with motivational and legitimately useful advice provides the additional benefit of protecting the figure from criticism. Take this video for example which went viral as it showed women who viewed Tate as misogynistic, taken by surprise when told about his positive quotes about women. This weird sort of idea that if you say good stuff then you can say the bad stuff to balance it out is a sort of illogical fallacy. The idea that saying women are beautiful cancels out saying that women are men’s property completely avoids accountability. Yet these arguments and ideas are often pushed forward by fans of these polarising figures to justify their continued existence and thus ability to say and act how they please, regardless of the harm done. This type of mentality means that young people idolise these figures, eroding accountability and viewing them as the voices of absolute truth regardless of their morally questionable actions

Gender/Misogyny

There is also a gender aspect to this whole discussion. Many of these polarising figures have been heavily involved in propagating misogynistic viewpoints, thus attracting an audience primarily composed of young males, resulting in a negative impact on young females. The angle which these figures and their young male supporters often take is one of a defence of masculinity. A feeling of defending their identity, and the aspects of masculinity that they feel are being ignored or rejected. This makes the situation surrounding polarising figures more complex, as many of their misogynistic comments are defended through the broader lens of a raising of potentially legitimate grievances. For example, take a view by Tate: “I’m very happy that my life has been difficult because it’s impossible to become a capable man without struggling, facing serious adversities and without trying to overcome often insurmountable odds.” This type of view one which is often raised by supporters of such figures, i.e. a defence of the struggles of men and the lack of attention that are paid to these struggles. To some extent, there is some truth in this position, male suicide rates for example were 78% men in 2019 in the UK. Yet despite this, there is a lack of support for men’s mental health issues. Thus, it is crucial that such grievances are addressed, understood, and not ignored. Nevertheless, it is important that the misogynistic attitudes and extreme comments are separated from the broader grievances, to ensure that such figures face sufficient digital accountability and scrutiny in equal measure.

Image: Tate’s contrasting quotes

Algorithmic extremism

Internet algorithms are another major source of young people’s attraction to toxic figures and ideas in the online space. Algorithms are pieces of computer codes that make decisions or recommendations. This takes form in the internet space on social media apps by recommending people view content similar to the content they have engaged with. This becomes a cycle in which, the same type of content they are interested in begins appearing more, causing the recipient to click it further, eventually resulting in the content flooding their recommended pages. This can be positive in the sense of users getting recommended content they are interested in and more likely to engage in, rather than random content they may not be as interested in. On the negative side however, this is also what has led to the rise of “algorithmic extremism”, i.e. those with any interest in extremist content, or accidentally viewing extremist content, get continually recommend extremist content, leading to the development of a radicalised individual, shielded off from balanced opinions, and isolating individuals into extreme spaces. This isolation of individuals into extreme spaces, is often referred to as an ‘echo chamber’, meaning that the individual is stuck in a space in which their beliefs and ideas are continually repeated and reinforced or ‘echoed’ thus strengthening the belief for an idea and cutting out any criticism or alternative viewpoints. We can see the effects of algorithmic extremism through the analytics on the type of content being promoted. To increase engagement, algorithms have found that hate, misinformation, and politics are instrumental for app activity. As a result, those with controversial views are not only encouraged by the style of social media platforms, but they also are heavily promoted by the in-built algorithmic systems. As one article reports: “The more incendiary the material, the more it keeps users engaged, the more it is boosted by the algorithm.” Indeed, this is all key to how the online space functions, and the vulnerability and impressionable character of young people means that controversial figures and ideas have a stronger impact.

What can I do as an adult, teacher or practitioner?

If you are someone in a position of care, authority or have young people in your lives, it’s important to understand how you can use the information discussed.

  • If you are reading this blog and trying to understand the online space, the different ways in which young people consume apps or follow certain influencers and why young people can be attracted to controversial figures and ideas then you are already moving in the right direction. Are you aware of which online influencers your young people are following? Do you understand the way, the platforms work, the types of controversial figures that trend and why young people are attracted to these ideas is important.
  • Having open conversations with young people about the figures and ideas they engage with online allows for you to understand the nature and type of the content they interact with. Using critical thinking in terms of asking and exploring the who, what, why and how type of open question gives young people a good framework to question and engage with those whose information cannot always be fact checked in a dynamic environment. Discussion in the classroom, with peers also provides an open dialogue so that they can discuss the content, engage with adults, and peer voices stopping them from bottling ideas up, and allowing you to both monitor, research to understand and provide alternative perspectives. It is important however to navigate these discussions in such a way, in which the overlapping aspects of problematic misogyny, mental health concerns and other topics are touched upon in a sensitive light.
  • How to approach open dialogue: Let the young people in your lives know that if they see anything concerning, scary or are confused about anything they read or engage with online then it’s okay to tell you so that you can discuss it together. This is part of creating an open dialogue and being open with young people in your lives generally, rather than demonising behaviour and ideas. Its important to have boundaries, but demonising behaviour rather than having open dialogues will sometimes result in young people hiding their interaction with ideas, leading to them not being questioned, and consequently, potentially reinforced.
  • If you think that young people in your lives are accessing and engaging with potentially harmful or damaging content, then make sure you seek to understand and have open conversations with them about it. If you think that this content could put them at risk of radicalisation then make sure content is additionally monitored, restricted or a guardian/DSL is contacted in addition to having open conversations.
  • There is certainly a gender element to this debate, understanding the gender dynamic is important. Recognising how these figures often attract young men, have controversial viewpoints concerning women and the grievances surrounding these extreme points of view is key. Addressing such grievances and separating them from the extreme points of view propagated by such figures is essential to understanding and communicating with young people on such issues.
  • This article is ultimately dedicated to understanding different perspectives, grievances, and viewpoints. Taking a step back and understanding the perspectives of both the figures and their viewers allows for people to close the gap that breeds misunderstanding and conflict. As a result, there is a potential to move toward better solutions to both perceived grievances as well as exploring the nuances and problematic digital approaches to controversial topics.

How can ConnectFutures help?

We at ConnectFutures provide expert facilitators to deliver workshops in a variety of forms and to a diversity of audiences across the UK. These workshops are with the aim of increasing knowledge, resilience and confidence in preventing extremism and serious violence, challenging hate, and promoting equality and justice. Specifically in relation to the issues discussed here, we deliver sessions on the following: fake news, conspiracy theories and truth. Safeguarding Against Online Extremism (SAVE). Incels, misogyny and the manosphere. Rise of far right, mixed ideology and hateful extremism.

I have also written an article entitled: ‘Incels, chads, misogyny and problematic terrorism overlaps: A young person’s perspective’.

For more information on the workshops delivered by ConnectFutures, please check out the link here

#echo chamber #Tate #Peterson #online extremism #algorithm #hate #misinformation #misogyny

*Please note that some words have been abbreviated for sensitivity and internal IT system procedures.