Social media firms in spotlight after allowing conspiracy theories that could affect human-trafficking investigation into ‘king of toxic masculinity’ in Romania
Social media firms are under fire this weekend for allowing the spread of misinformation by followers of “king of toxic masculinity” Andrew Tate after his arrest in connection with a human trafficking investigation.
In the hours after his detention, TikTok and Twitter were flooded with posts falsely claiming he had been freed and conspiracy theories saying he had been set up, Observer analysis shows.
Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, said: “Having conspiracy theories proliferating which might put at risk the integrity of an investigation or the safety of those involved is unconscionable.”
Tate, 36, a British-American internet personality best known for his misogynistic views, was arrested with his brother Tristan in Romania on 29 December as part of an investigation into human trafficking, rape and organised crime.
An investigation by the Observer in August into the former kickboxer and Big Brother contestant revealed that TikTok was aggressively promoting his content to users including boys and young men. Members of Tate’s online academy had been instructed to post deliberately controversial clips in an effort to boost engagement and manipulate the algorithm.
After his arrest last week, a statement from prosecutors said four people, including two Britons, were suspected of being part of a criminal group that sexually exploited women after luring them with promises of a relationship.
The women were allegedly subjected to “physical violence and mental coercion through intimidation, constant surveillance, control and invoking alleged debts” and forced to make pornographic videos. Six potential victims had been identified.
Further details of the specific allegations against Tate have not been made public. On Friday, it was confirmed that he would spend the next 30 days in detention as Romania’s Directorate for Investigating Organised Crime and Terrorism continues its inquiries.
On social media, thousands of supporters have already reached their verdict. On TikTok and Twitter, Tate’s fans claimed without evidence that he had been framed, using hashtags such as #freetopG and #tateinnocent. “People lie because they hate Tate,” one wrote on Twitter. “I’m 100% sure Tate is innocent. FREE TATE,” said another.
Others blamed “the Matrix” for setting him up. This was fuelled by Tate himself in a tweet posted after news of his arrest: “The Matrix sent their agents,” he wrote on Friday.
Since the release of the 1999 sci-fi film about people living in a simulation, where a man is given the choice to take a red pill and “wake up”, the metaphor has been repeatedly repurposed in a range of conspiracy theories, as well by fringe online groups who use “redpill” to mean men waking up to the “reality” that feminism subjugates them.
On TikTok on Friday, the most-liked recent video about Tate was one that appeared at first to be a factual report but ended by asking viewers: “What do you guys think is the real reason Tate was arrested? Was it the Matrix, or did Tate actually commit a serious crime?”
On Twitter, where Tate has more than 4m followers after his account was reinstated in November, many posts referenced #Pizzagate – a debunked theory that predated QAnon and claimed senior Democrats were behind a child sexual abuse ring – and suggested he was being used as a scapegoat by real paedophile rings.
In a video made shortly before his arrest, after a Twitter spat with the climate activist Greta Thunberg, Tate had appeared on camera with a pizza box in front of him in what some speculated was a reference to the conspiracy. “They want to cover up Pizzagate with Andrew Tate,” one Twitter user wrote, tagging Elon Musk.
Other accounts posted old videos suggesting Tate had been cleared, despite him remaining in detention. One clip viewed 780,000 times on Twitter by Saturday claimed to show him being freed from custody. “Andrew Tate got Released Matrix attack Failed,” the caption read.
The fierce defence of Tate and spread of misinformation since his arrest will add to concerns about the impact on any future legal proceedings and raise questions for the social media platforms that helped propel him to the mainstream.
In the weeks after the Observer’s August investigation, TikTok banned Tate’s official account and said it took a tough stance on hateful content including misogyny. On Saturday night, TikTok said it had begun a systematic review of content flagged with it and would remove any that violated its guidelines, which ban “misinformation that causes significant harm to individuals, our community, or the larger public”. Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.