October 2, 2023 - 1:00pm

It was perhaps inevitable that the defenestration of Laurence Fox should have attracted the attention of Andrew Tate. Fox became last week’s Current Thing, when he was suspended from GB News after saying of PoliticsJOE writer Ava Evans “who’d want to shag that?” As “cancellation” only ever really means “departing for a more congenial filter bubble”, no one should be surprised to find Fox in the media orbit of a man who built a cam-girl empire and social media career on the premise that women are objects.

Yesterday, I tuned into the Rumble livestream, in which these two titans of contemporary masculinity pooled their woes. I don’t recommend it; perhaps the kindest thing I can say about the fug of woolly thinking, machismo, self-pity, and sexual ressentiment on display is that it wasn’t really appropriate for mixed company. 

But this is precisely the point: I’m emphatically not the intended audience for such content. The engine of internet virality is (figuratively) listening at the door while social circles you don’t belong to talk among themselves. Then, when you hear an opinion that was never meant for you, the fun lies in loudly experiencing horror, outrage, derision, disgust et cetera — and sending the opinion on so others can do the same. 

Canny internet operators know this. The ones that attain household-name status generally have a knack for saying things that energise their base while also being both legible and infuriating to outsiders. When someone beyond their intended audience gets wind of it the influencer is borne aloft on the viral winds of internet outrage. Tate is a master at this, but there are many others. 

The opinions themselves don’t need to be internally coherent, at least not beyond the brief clips that lend themselves to viral transmission. In the Tate/Fox transmission last night, for example, it was agreed both that women are better than men at looking after children, but also that it’s not fair that women get custody of children in a majority of divorce cases, which is evidence that our way of life is now rigged against men. Should women be treated as having a special facility for care and nurturing, or not? The product on offer here isn’t a coherent worldview, but a habit of mind. 

None of this would matter were these figures minor characters in a discourse otherwise dominated by the kind of reasoned discussion and truth-seeking the original digital utopians envisaged. But they aren’t, not least because the utopians were wrong. Despite being regularly evicted by one platform after another, Tate has 1.64 million subscribers on Rumble, and his livestream with Fox has enjoyed over 679,000 views since yesterday. Fox has been on numerous other podcasts since insulting Ava Evans on telly. Broadcast and legacy media have joined the feeding frenzy. 

Next week the Current Thing will be something else. But this is how the mass-emotion industry works: influencers sell their in-group mindset, while also trading off the pleasurable outrage this induces in their out-group. Even, or perhaps especially, political phenomena with serious real-world implications are now routinely subject to the Current Thing dynamic: a far from exhaustive list in recent years might include Covid lockdowns, vaccinations, BLM, asylum policy, and how to respond to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

And though it’s a point I’ve made before, it bears repeating: in the digital, post-literate context this is very difficult to avoid. There are only weak incentives to pursue objectivity, compromise, reconciliation, or truth, and strong ones to gain reach on rage-bait and context collapse. There’s no going back to a print-first culture, short of unplugging the internet. Just today Gillian Keegan announced that smartphones are to be banned in schools, which is a start.

But if we’re to maintain any kind of functional social fabric with it still plugged in, my hunch is that we’ll need to develop a stronger collective immune response to the kind of fast-flowing digital hysteria that drives Current Thing feeding frenzies.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.