Voices: Greta Thunberg’s response to Andrew Tate was a masterclass in dignity

Did more than 100 million of us witness the most perfect comeback of all time when Greta Thunberg took down Andrew Tate on Twitter? It’s pretty much a unanimous “yes”. But was it the right thing to do? The answer to that is less obvious. Let me explain why.

I’m guessing you’ve been there: someone says something to you that isn’t all that pleasant or is just utter rubbish, and you don’t say anything. You can’t find the words. Under a layer of shock, annoyance and everything else, they’re just not there. Until they are. If you’re anything like me, this will be about two hours later when the moment has well and truly passed. Can you relate?

Not so, for Greta. This week, on Twitter, many of us witnessed what appeared to be not one but two legendary comebacks with perfect timing: one about Tate’s “small d*** energy” and one about what happens when you don’t recycle your pizza boxes (alluding to the theory that Tate’s arrest in Romania as part of an investigation into human trafficking and rape may have come about after he posted a video online that gave away his whereabouts).

Lest you’re not familiar with the opponents, on one side we have former kickboxing world champion Tate (whose other claims to fame include being kicked out of the 17th season of Big Brother for hitting a woman with a belt – which he claims was consensual – and being removed from numerous social media platforms for making violent and misogynistic statements); a man with 3.4 million followers who was banned from Twitter until not that long ago. On the other, we have Greta Thunberg. Greta doesn’t need an intro. With 5.2 million followers, she’s both a climate activist and a heavyweight in the social media world, too.

Greta’s clapback has been shared far and wide. At the time of writing, 193 million views, 564k retweets and so much more. This exceeds the original tweet by Tate by some margin.

But what really happened here? And what can we learn from it?

When I work with businesses and individuals on their social media strategy, the advice is not to engage with trolls. It’s to hide, block, report and move on. But was Tate really “trolling” Greta? I would argue strongly that his tweet wasn’t actually trolling in nature. Designed to get a reaction? Yes. Arrogant? Also yes. But not trolling.

I would usually advise (and this is what I say to small businesses) that negative comments simply aren’t worth the effort. Like a fire, negativity needs oxygen to survive. And tweets need extra reach to do the same. If it’s a comment connected to an untruth or a genuine issue, that does need to be handled, but just idle, irrelevant thoughts designed for a reaction? No. And one of the reasons I say to avoid is because of the potential damage to your reputation by “fighting” with someone online.

But this wasn’t a fight. It was a cutting statement designed to stand up to someone who’s made a name for themselves by being outspoken and controversial (and then some). If Greta was my client, I would say this: with an audience of over five million, when someone challenges you in such a public way, with something that contrasts what you’ve spent your life to date campaigning about and for, should you “fight” back? Absolutely. Even though it goes against “best practice”.

Greta has taken on world leaders and voiced her beliefs in the most public of places. She’s stood up to – and for – so much. She’s been in training for every challenge that has come her way since she decided to sit outside the Swedish parliament when she was still at school. And although I cannot imagine for a second that Tate is her usual nemesis, she dealt a blow that was unexpected and took on a “giant”.

Of course, this thread has generated a lot of publicity for both parties involved. I’ve never seen so many pictures of a man putting fuel in a car on Twitter as this last few days, or #smalld***energy as a trending hashtag. The comments on the threads are interesting too. While many are very funny, some do reveal interesting aspects of human behaviour.

One tweet that I’ve seen shared a lot (both version one and version two, as the first was deleted) was by Julia Hartley-Brewer, who stated that she’d rather have Andrew Tate’s life than Greta’s. In itself, not particularly groundbreaking – but the fact that Greta’s autism was mentioned has certainly caused a widespread and understandable reaction. There are many reasons beyond the obvious as to why, but with her second version receiving 1.5 million views at the time of writing and well over 3,000 comments, maybe the “energy” of this exchange extends beyond Andrew and Greta?

After all, most people by now have an opinion on both Tate and Greta Thunberg. I’d say for many, Greta’s comeback has elevated her status. Unusually, given what she stands for, this is not for her beliefs, for standing up to a social media force of nature. It’s done wonders for her “brand”. Tate’s? Not so much.

There’s also a lesson to be learned here about dignity. Despite her two legendary clapbacks, Greta remained relatively quiet and dignified on Twitter. As Harriet Williamson writes, she took her time over her reply. She left him on read.

And Tate couldn’t cope. He couldn’t play it cool, or ignore it. He had a very emotional response to Greta’s wry comment – he posted an entire video, and appears to have dropped himself right in it with the authorities as a result. Again, Greta “poking the bear” isn’t something that I would usually advise to social media clients as best practice, but it certainly worked. Didn’t it, Andrew?