How can teachers and schools respond to the influence of dangerous online personalities?

Stephanie Wescott investigatespost-truth politics’ and ‘manosphere extremists’ in Australian schools. 

Figures of the “manosphere” – a loose group of online figures who espouse anti-feminist and misogynist ideas and promote regressive ideas of masculinity – have risen in popularity in recent years.

Given the currency these figures have among some young people, how can teachers and schools respond to the influence of dangerous online personalities?

How do other social challenges, such as the deliberate spread of disinformation online and appeals to emotion over facts (or other symptoms of “post-truth”), complicate interventions and approaches to countering extremist ideologies?

The influence of Andrew Tate

In June 2023, news broke that Andrew Tate, a popular online figure who generates extreme misogynist content, was to face trial in Romania on charges including human trafficking, rape and forming a criminal gang.

While my colleague, Steven Roberts, and I had been advocating for broader acknowledgement of Tate’s harmful presence in Australian schools prior to this news, we remained sceptical that criminal proceedings were going to loosen the hold his ideology has over some boys and young men.

Our research with 30 women teachers in schools across Australia found that not only is Tate shaping how boys view and treat women, but he has also enculturated followers into conspiratorial thinking. This has enabled him to claim that the charges were part of a broader conspiracy executed by global “elites”.

Other views held by boys and reported by their teachers represent skewed understandings of gender-based power dynamics – some boys now believe women are an oppressive force against them, that the gender wage gap doesn’t exist, and, of course, that the charges brought against Tate in the Romanian legal system are fake.

These findings suggest two intersecting issues – the rise of manosphere figures and their influence on boys and young men and post-truth conditions that validate the rejection of proven facts.

The manosphere in post-truth times

In 2020, a United Nations Security Council Report expressed concern about “scientifically baseless conspiracy theories and disinformation flourish[ing] and spread[ing] rapidly across the internet”, as well as growing polarisation and the use of conspiracy theories to “radicalise, recruit, and inspire plots and attacks.”

Recent research explores the implications of post-truth politics for schools and for education broadly, as well as for teaching specific subjects, such as reading or science.

However, the crossover between the post-truth promulgation of disinformation and the recruitment of young people in Australian schools to radical ideologies such as those touted by Tate requires ongoing attention.

For example, on his website Tate advertises an “advanced financial education platform” called The Real World, which he claims will “disrupt the modern education system forever”, and enable users to “escape The Matrix” (mainstream society).

The Real World promises a path to wealth creation but has been revealed to be an exploitative digital grooming site, likened to a pyramid scheme, that recruits followers to produce online content for Tate.

While not all boys who follow Tate will end up recruited to this scheme, he creates a dangerous pathway that may lead boys to explore other conspiratorial, post-truth paradigms, dismissive of teachers, schools, and other institutions as valid sources of knowledge.

Belief in conspiracy theories has serious implications for young people and school climates; in broader society, they lead to distrust and polarisation.

In exploiting some real concerns among boys and young men, such as economic opportunity and loneliness, Tate’s content becomes a gateway to other forms of denialism, bigotry, and conspiratorial thinking that must be addressed.

The ways forward

There are multiple opportunities in the Australian Curriculum to address the influence of manosphere extremists.

Critical Thinking has been a longstanding General Capability in the curriculum, and the new Australian Curriculum 9.0 has revised the ICT Capability, which is now Digital Literacy (although the focus of this capability is on safety, privacy, identity, and well-being rather than identifying and countering malicious influence).

Critical Literacy and Critical Data Literacy have significant roles to play, and there are multiple learning areas where this kind of education can take place. The Respectful Relationships curriculum presents an ideal opportunity to counter harmful ideas and messaging.

Finally, while there are several short-term or day programs and guest speakers available to schools to counter some of the harmful influences of Tate and others, what we really need is long-term, critical, and transformational approaches embedded within both curricula and school cultures.

Dr Stephanie Wescott, Lecturer, School of Education Culture and Society, Monash University, Melbourne.

This article was first published on Monash Lens. Read the original article.