Manipulating the Public Mind

Manipulation plagues social media through foundational flaws, causing irreparable damage to our society.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Manipulation ranges from simple gaslighting techniques to full-blown mental distortion. Social media has allowed the manipulative tactics of influencers who want to spread harmful views to be more effective. It’s built for falling into manipulative traps, as users are exposed to a strong popularity bias in which AI algorithms maximize engagement through a person’s feed. These algorithms are based on the assumption that recommending what is popular will help high-quality content get exposure, which is false.

A study on how algorithmic popularity bias hinders quality found that once the popularity of a low-quality item is large enough, it will keep getting amplified. Government Executive states that information is transmitted via complex contagion, meaning the more times someone is exposed to an idea online, the more likely they are to adopt and reshare it. These processes make it almost impossible to navigate social media without encountering manipulation.

The most relevant example of successful manipulation is Andrew Tate, an infamous “alpha male” and social media content creator. Tate has spread his sexism to millions across almost every platform imaginable because he knows exactly how to control the audience. The Internet personality rose to fame after his supporters flooded social media with various clips and edits of his rants on various topics, including sexist messages, some of which perpetuate rape culture. Tate’s outrageous claims range from calling women bad drivers to advising women to “shut the [EXPLETIVE] up, have kids, sit at home, be quiet, [and] make coffee,” age-old stereotypes repackaged for a new generation. Though his hateful messages aren’t illegal, Tate allegedly trafficked women he coerced to work for his adult webcam site. Tate’s wealth is based on exploitation, and his messages directly contribute to the abuse of women.

The overwhelming number of Tate’s supporters who are spitting out the same misogynistic rhetoric is a testament to his ability to influence the masses. Streamer Adin Ross has essentially become a prophet of Tate, agreeing with anything the “Top G” says and spreading more harmful rhetoric about women. The generalizations, such as claiming women cannot drive as well as men, add fuel to the fire of baseless stereotypes. Sneako, a streamer whose YouTube channel was removed for multiple violations of community guidelines, produced the same type of sexist content for his fans. The hive mind that such influencers have created ironically promotes breaking out of society’s shackles by refusing to abide by society’s “censorship of masculine men,” yet their messages are stereotypes perpetuated by the patriarchy since the beginning of time. Before he got banned, Sneako had almost 1.3 million subscribers on YouTube. Ross is the seventh most subscribed to streamer on Twitch, with 43 thousand active subscribers, while Tate has amassed 4.5 million followers on Twitter. Though all three have been subject to ridicule and mass opposition, their reach is shown in their loyal followers who defend them and their disgusting views to the end.

The demographic of these content creators is overwhelmingly male, especially those who are demonizing the changing definition of masculinity in the 21st century. In the eyes of an “alpha male,” a man should be dominant, even at the expense of others—namely, women. Tate and his followers portray the increasing societal acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community and the fluidity of gender expression as an attack on “alpha males.” By blaming an entire group of people for large-scale problems with various underlying factors, the manipulators choose an easy target. This strategy is an example of creating an in-group and out-group by manipulating emotions. This manipulation tactic, commonly used by political leaders, primes the audience to feel outraged at an entire movement, creating one common enemy. For example, former President Donald Trump has a history of misogynistic comments aimed at women of power. He used stereotypes and insults to put down his presidential opponent Hillary Clinton and denied the validity of the #MeToo movement, claiming that young men were in danger. Brown University Professor Rose McDermott stresses the importance of identity in manipulation, claiming that a leader will pick identities to enhance self- esteem, create community, increase a sense of status and power, and allow us to feel good about ourselves. In this case, “traditional masculinity” is put upon a pedestal, ignoring many of the problems that it creates for women, such as abuse and the wage gap.

An algorithm based on popularity feeds social media users a constant stream of content that may satisfy them. However, this property establishes a precedent of lower quality, enabling harmful content to arise. Though social media companies did their part by banning Tate from Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, and YouTube, the change came too late. His impact on social media had already been felt, and his followers have only continued to influence other ignorant consumers. The responsibility ultimately falls on the company to keep its users safe and protect the online community.

Unfortunately, after Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, Tate was unbanned, providing him an outlet to instill centuries-old stereotypes veiled under the encouragement of self-improvement and an “alpha male” mindset. The concept of Tate or any social media user being protected by free speech is flawed, as anyone as harmful as he is to the community should immediately be investigated and removed from the platform. Minimizing the effects of manipulation is not an impossible task. However, there is a point at which it becomes censorship. Ultimately, the current guidelines that social media companies have are adequate, but action taken against those who break them is not quick enough or does not happen at all.