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5 March 2024

Labour’s “feminist Andrew Tate” will not stop online misogyny

The idea of using positive, feminist male influencers to “counterbalance” social media sexism fails to understand today’s young male minds.

By Sarah Manavis

Ask a parent, tech expert or any woman who has spent time on the internet in recent years and they’ll tell you we are living through a period of acute backlash against women’s rights and a sharp rise in toxic masculinity. The evidence is substantial: last year, a global study found 52 per cent of Gen-Z respondents thought the world had gone too far in promoting gender equality; research published in February found that Gen-Z boys and men are more likely to see feminism as harmful than men over 60. As far back as 2020, surveys found that half of male Gen-Zers believed feminism had made it harder for men to succeed.

This sudden spike is, more often than not, credited to dominance of “alpha influencers”: the male social media stars who actively promote misogyny and an ultra-macho view of masculinity. The most famous of these influencers is Andrew Tate, who has become notorious in the past two years for his male supremacist views. His name has become a shorthand for this type of popular online misogyny. Tate is seen as the source of a rapidly growing problem among young people today that, as yet, no government body has earnestly tried to address.

Last week, though, Labour put forward the first threads of a plan to manage the “Andrew Tate problem”. Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, announced the party would help schools to develop positive, feminist male influencers in order to combat online misogyny and create a “powerful counterbalance” to figures like Tate. These influencers would be young men sourced from schools’ local area who would also conduct peer-to-peer mentoring in schools, helping boys spot sexism on social media, while also sharing their own experiences of masculinity, demonstrating the value of gender equality both in person and online. By becoming influencers, Phillipson noted, they would also be able to reach and affect young minds beyond their regional area. The proposal could “shift the discussion around what it is to be growing up as a young man today in modern Britain”, she said.

It may sound like a fresh, creative policy to address the bogeyman of alpha influencers warping young male minds. (There has been an ongoing discussion about the lack of left-leaning self-help gurus – Phillipson’s idea could be a remedy for this failure.) There are certainly fewer figures rhapsodising about the value of progressive politics – particularly in relation to masculinity – than the opposite. It’s also true that alpha influencers are extremely influential among young male audiences – surveys show that Tate has been one of the most popular social media stars among American teenage boys since his rise to mainstream fame in the summer of 2022.

But the Labour proposal fails to grasp what is really changing young male minds, and misunderstands how influencing and social media work – all while propping up the false idea of a “positive influencer” (with perfectly respectable politics). A large part of the reason why these “good” influencers don’t exist on the same level as the “bad” ones is that shock politics – and the perceived transgression of being openly misogynistic – goes viral in a way that benign, warm and friendly content rarely does. Alpha influencers give the appearance of shooting from the hip, where they spread a self-help message cloaked in a casual story about their own success. A heavily monitored and tailored non-toxic male influencer – with ideas honed and controlled by the government and or a local school – will always fail to have the informal, direct quality that makes figures like Tate so watchable.

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Putting aside the difficulty of creating a perfectly respectable male influencer, this policy only addresses the symptoms of a much bigger problem: that boys are rejecting progressive politics and adopting misogynistic principles that are affirmed by alpha influencers, but not necessarily generated by them. The pervasiveness of these ideas is underestimated. Many wrongly suggest they are localised among a handful of influential social media talking heads, rather than a message that boys are receiving across an unfathomable volume of content daily (if not hourly). Sexist ideas are parroted by alpha influencers and their copycats, but they also appear in prank videos, memes and other online content that relies on gender tropes and stereotypes for cheap and easy punchlines. These attitudes were spreading long before Tate’s emergence, or the rise of TikTok (some British teachers claim they detected a backlash against feminism in the 2010s). This policy makes the mistake of suggesting boys don’t understand what’s sexist and what isn’t, when the majority must be aware that what they are consuming is harmful to women, but enjoy it in spite of (or even because of) that.

It’s good Labour recognises that misogyny among boys and young men is something that requires political intervention – and it is heartening to see the party putting forward proposals to address this issue. But the problem is much deeper than one that could be resolved by colourful but flimsy policies such as this one. It also fails to address a more difficult challenge: how to change the young minds who have already drunk the Kool-Aid on misogyny. The past decade of learning about online radicalisation shows that preventing it is much easier than undoing it.

Personalised, positive male mentors who extol the virtues of gender equality and the fallacies of sexism may save some boys from falling down a rabbit hole that permanently shifts how they see the world. But a handful of feminist Andrew Tates will never be enough to stop a global, generation-wide problem.

[See also: There will be more populism]

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