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23 January 2023

“There are thousands of Andrew Tates out there”: The battle against online extremism

Counterextremism expert Milo Comerford on what Isis can teach us about the spread of radical misogyny.

By Rachel Cunliffe

How was it possible for Andrew Tate, the misogynistic influencer who has been instructing teenage boys how to control and abuse women (“Bang out the machete, boom in her face and grip her by the neck”), to amass a cult following without mainstream society catching on? By the time his name started appearing in news headlines in August 2022, after he was banned from TikTok, he was already one of the most googled people in the world with millions of fans. Since his arrest by Romanian police in December on allegations of trafficking and rape, which Tate denies, there has been a renewed flurry of attention not just on the horrific content of his viral videos, but on the social media platforms which enabled him to build his online empire and entice thousands to pay for his “Hustlers University”. Parents and politicians want to know: where did he come from? And why did no one notice how so many young men were gradually being brainwashed by a self-professed “misogynist”?

Tucked away in an unremarkable Georgian building in the heart of London is an organisation full of people who did. The enigmatically named Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) sounds like something out of a John Le Carré thriller. It’s a think tank, founded in 2006 to tackle extremism. At first that mostly meant focusing on the threat of Islamist radicalisation, but since then their remit has expanded: white supremacy, climate disinformation, the far right, extreme homophobia, hatred of women. And that includes misogynists such as Tate.

“There’s been this undercurrent bubbling away for years on a range of different platforms,” explains Milo Comerford, who leads the ISD’s work on counterextremism. To him, the kind of content Tate produces, while unusually successful, is neither unexpected nor unique. While Tate sucks users into his world with self-help advice and promises of easy money-making tips, at the heart of his offering is something indisputably dark. “He sits on the peripheries of this ‘manosphere’ of highly anti-women subcultures and online environments.” This manosphere encompasses men’s rights activists, pick-up artists, the “incel” (involuntary celibate) community – individuals and groups who believe men have been trampled by women and need to resist the evils of feminism.

To understand Tate’s appeal among his core fanbase, Comerford argues, we need to zoom out and see him not as lone phenomenon, but in the context of a wider trend: the spread of extremist ideas via social media platforms.

“We’re talking specifically about ideologies and world views that are supremacist at their heart,” he explains. “They position your own group, whether that’s a group based on your gender, your religion or your race, against that of another or many others. At that point, the acceptability of attacking this out-group, or demonising them or removing their rights, is key.” This common thread of supremacy binds together extremist ideologies from very different ends of the political spectrum, from radical Islamism to neo-Nazis to misogynists who want to undo a century of women’s progress.

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Social media has been key in enabling such ideas to spread. The big platforms – Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube – are powered by opaque algorithms that reward the most provocative posts and direct vulnerable users down rabbit holes to more and more extreme content. That makes them the ideal spaces for radicalisation, whether users are being groomed to travel to Syria and join Isis, or to sign up for dubious training courses in crypto investing with a side order of violent misogyny.

The knee-jerk response from politicians from across the political spectrum has been to look into ways of banning harmful content. There have been suggestions, including from Rishi Sunak, that the UK government’s Online Safety Bill, making its way through parliament, would protect children and young people from people such as Tate. But any regulation of the internet quickly runs up against concerns over the protection of free speech and the practical problems with requiring platforms to censor content that is technically legal, even if it is deeply dangerous. Experts are also divided on the impact legislation alone can have.

“For me, there are more creative ways of thinking about responding to these issues than just sanctioning and taking down material,” Comerford argues. While he believes governments need to be more aware of how hate spreads online, a panicked “whack-a-mole” approach of banning accounts only when they become famous enough for politicians to be aware of them will never be a solution. “There are thousands of Andrew Tates out there. He is the product of the way platforms and their algorithmic systems are built.”

Comerford sees two main strategies for tackling this. The first is to force tech companies to take more responsibility not just for what is hosted on their platforms, but for what the algorithms promote and amplify. “These people may have freedom of speech, for legal speech, but do they have freedom of reach?” He points to the EU’s Digital Services Act, which will force platforms to be “much more transparent about how their algorithmic systems might be serving up harmful content”, and suggests the functions of tech platforms themselves could be used to make sure alternative viewpoints and contextualising information appear next to this kind of content.

The second is education. Teachers are belatedly being offered training in how to respond when their pupils parrot Tate’s perverse rhetoric (such as the argument that rape victims “bear responsibility” for being assaulted) but by that point much of the damage has already been done. These conversations, Comerford stresses, need to happen pre-emptively, before teenagers get sucked in and start actively seeking out this content – “you have to address the demand side as well as the supply side of this”. The men who flock to Tate see him not as a misogynistic monster but an aspirational role model, someone who cares about them and can teach them how to get ahead in life. Once they’re at that point, it’s very hard to convince them they’ve been manipulated. (Even now that he has been arrested his fans insist he’s been set up by “the Matrix” and refuse to believe their idol could have committed the crimes he’s accused of.) Far more effective is a form of digital “inoculation”: reaching young people before they are exposed to extremist views, teaching them how the videos they see end up in their TikTok feeds and to recognise how influencers exploit the algorithms.

“You can have these conversations with teenagers,” Comerford says. “They’re super-interesting. Bring in a YouTube influencer to talk about how they’re able to reach people by using clever key words and techniques that are used in marketing, but also how that might be abused by people who want to sell you upriver or take you for a ride.”

[See also: Salman Rushdie’s books show us that free speech is life itself]

Comerford has seen all this before. He was working for the Tony Blair Institute, a think tank set up by the former prime minister to help governments address global challenges, just at the point when radical Islamists were starting to use social media to recruit. “There was this sudden interest in why young people from the UK, from the Middle East, from across Europe, were dropping everything in the name of an ideological cause, Spanish Civil War style, and travelling to a war zone.” As a millennial Facebook user himself, he could see how radicalising content was being produced and optimised for these new platforms, targeted specifically at people his age.

The impact of those social media campaigns – campaigns that can make insurgent terrorism look like an aspirational lifestyle – is indisputable. In December 2022 the Ministry of Justice published findings on internet radicalisation based on polling of more than four hundred people convicted of extremist offences. Of those convicted prior to 2007, just 8 per cent said they had been subject to radicalisation online; for those convicted between 2019 and 2021, the figure was 92 per cent.

“Now we’re seeing the same toolbox being used by far-right extremists, by white supremacists, to reach young people. And again, it took a long time to get people to take that seriously.”

Some might be sceptical about drawing a link between sexist videos, however distressing, and Islamist terrorism. But increasingly online hate is tipping over into violence. In August 2021 Jake Davison, 22, shot dead five people in Plymouth. He had been heavily involved in online incel communities promoting extreme misogyny, leading to calls for his crime to be classed as an act of terrorism. Typical terrorism definitions are based on organisations with hierarchies and clearly stated political goals; the nebulous world of online subcultures where users are radicalised and encouraged towards violence doesn’t fit. Yet the death toll is real: five in Plymouth, 51 at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand (2019), 11 at a synagogue in Pittsburgh (2018), 11 in an incel-motivated attack in Toronto (2018), nine at an African American church in Charleston, South Carolina (2015), six in a misogynistic attack in Isla Vista, California (2014). And they’re real enough for the ISD to avoid listing its address on its website, in case its staff are targeted by extremists – of whatever type.

I point out to Comerford that the ISD sits in a somewhat uneasy political space. It has faced criticism from a range of figures who do not usually find themselves on the same side: pundits on both left and right, free speech activists, civil liberties groups and climate sceptics. Many are wary of how politicians crusading against extremism often end up trying to shut down speech or limit human rights.

Comerford pushes back against the idea that there has to be a trade-off between freedoms and security. “The biggest threat of extremism is to human rights,” he says. “The core of our work is this sense that liberal democracy is what’s being imperilled by these issues.”

There is also discomfort with the notion that extremist ideas that stem from vastly different ideologies could or should be addressed in the same way. But if we focused less on the ideologies themselves and more on the societal factors that leave people vulnerable to such hate-filled positions in the first place – poverty, poor education, mental health under-funding, the absence of positive male role models – we might find the challenge easier to tackle. Maybe the lessons learned by watching British teenagers groomed online destroy their lives by moving to Syria to join Isis could be used to stop disenchanted young men being driven into Andrew Tate’s toxic manosphere before it’s too late. The tech platforms have a significant role to play, but perhaps so do we.

As Comerford puts it: “So much of this debate gets so trapped in how do we get rid of this stuff and why is this appearing. There has to be a big conversation about why is this resonating.”

[See also: How it feels to be cancelled by Calvin Robinson and the free speech brigade]