Leaving The Real World: How I Escaped Andrew Tate’s Get Rich Quick ‘Cult’

Karim Mahmoud joined Andrew Tate’s online business academy expecting to get rich, but found himself stuck in an exploitative grift that nearly derailed his life. He’s now trying to warn others away.

Vice News/January 16, 2024

By Tim Hume

This time last year, Karim Mahmoud, a 25-year-old engineering student from Cairo, Egypt, was among the hundreds of thousands of young men around the world who counted themselves diehard fans of Andrew Tate.

He swallowed Tate’s hyper-capitalist, misogynistic ideology wholesale, and was convinced of his innocence on the human trafficking charges he faced in Romania. At one stage, he even sent a DM to his hero telling him he was willing to fight for him.

“The message I sent him said, like, ‘If you want to go to war, I'm going to be one of your army.’ You know, it was very cringe,” laughs Mahmoud with embarrassment. “That's how bad I was.”

Initially drawn to the controversial influencer, manosphere guru and accused human trafficker through his ubiquitous social media videos, Mahmoud soon became a paid-up subscriber of Tate’s new online business academy, The Real World, which was launched in November 2022 as a revamped version of his “Hustlers University.”

The centrepiece of Tate’s business empire, the site bills itself as “the world’s most advanced financial education platform” and promises to equip young men with the entrepreneurial skills to allow them to “escape ‘the Matrix’” – Tate’s disparaging term for mainstream society – and avoid an otherwise inevitable future as a “brokie”. Mahmoud was convinced it would make him rich.

Before long, he was completely immersed in Tate’s universe. Isolating himself from friends and family, Mahmoud would regularly spend 10-12 hours a day - sometimes as many as 16 - at his computer, editing and publishing social media videos promoting Tate daily as part of the required coursework. He had become a cog in the same sophisticated PR machine that had initially drawn him into the influencer’s web.

Today, Mahmoud doesn’t recognise the person he was then. He no longer idealises the man he once looked up to as the “Top G,” having had his illusions shattered after one day stumbling across details online from the indictment against the Tate brothers’ for allegedly grooming women into sex work as camgirls.

“I don’t think he's an honourable man. I don't think he's a real man in any regard,” says Mahmoud. No longer a member of The Real World, he now views himself as having escaped a cult.

While much has been made of the toxic influence of Tate’s misogynistic attitudes on a generation of impressionable young men, former Tate supporters and critics have spoken out to VICE News to warn of another dimension of the threat he poses: that his latest business endeavour, in their view, is scamming his own fans.

The Real World, they say, is a cynical and ingenious grift – with the hallmarks of a pyramid scheme – that targets teenagers to financially exploit them, while using them as drones to power Tate’s formidable social media PR machine. Students on the platform, they say, are given low-quality tuition amid a cult-like atmosphere, where they are pushed to skip sleep and work unsustainably long hours in pursuit of their coursework, which involves producing social media videos promoting Tate and his interests - acting as a decentralised content factory for the influencer.

One lawyer told VICE News he saw the scheme, which relies on the acquiescence of social media platforms, as resembling another form of “digital grooming” of young people - many of whom hail from poor backgrounds in developing countries - by a man who stands accused of grooming women into online sex work. Meanwhile, Tate, who describes himself an “ice cold hustler”, has repeatedly boasted of scamming his customers in a previous online business.

The Real World charges members $49 a month to subscribe, and claims to have more than 200,000 paying members - although observers believe this is a significant exaggeration. Critics say the platform recklessly targets young teens, and cynically exploits them by selling a promise of fantastic wealth as long as they commit the effort and money required.

One of Tate’s closest associates, Miles Sonkin, who uses the pseudonym Iggy Semmelweis, has stated that its “prime demographic” is “school-age boys, 12-18,” and the platform features a “gamified” design intended to appeal to young people. It’s heavily promoted at teenagers, with promotional posts claiming that young teenagers are making huge sums on the platform.

“Over $10,000 made in The Real World at 13 YEARS OLD. Imagine where this G will be when he’s 16?” reads one. “Micah is 16 years old making $2,500 a month, but this is only the start,” read another.

But leaked posts and recorded presentations from inside The Real World, shared with VICE News, tell a very different story. They paint a picture of vulnerable boys and young men of limited means who claim to be struggling after committing more money and time than they can afford to the platform, blinded by their hero worship of Tate. Meanwhile, course instructors push their students to work unsustainably long hours in pursuit of their goals, in some cases recommending they work up to 16 hours a day, or sleep just three hours a night, according to former students.

“The idea of rest is stupid,” says one The Real World instructor in a “morning check-in” call with his students, which was recorded and shared with VICE News. “Rest is not real. The only rest that is real is sleeping, and that is it.”

VICE News has seen posts made in a section of The Real World where students were encouraged to post questions to Tate directly, with those considered the “best” receiving a response. In one such post, a member in Indonesia writes begging Tate to help find him work, as he has spent all his money on The Real World membership, but has been unable to land a copywriting client. “I really don’t have any more money,” he writes. “Even 10 dollars would save my life.”

A student in Pakistan asks for advice as to whether he should prioritise focusing on his coursework in The Real World or his actual university studies. “I am currently unemployed and have enough money to sustain myself for only two months… I want to start earning to stabilise my finances while continuing my studies at TRW,” he writes. In another post, a 12-year-old subscriber seeks advice as “no matter how much I try, I don’t seem to get any money.”

None of the posts received a response.

According to Mahmoud, the posts are an accurate reflection of what it’s like inside The Real World, where gullible members are exploited for their labour and money.

“There was nobody that was making any real money,” he said, citing conversations he had with other students in the platform’s chatrooms, and the empty “win section” on most users’ profiles that indicated a lack of earnings. “There's people inside there that are leaving their schools, their unis, to pursue this,” he said, adding that one of his new friends on the platform told him he had abandoned his university studies to go all-in on the program.

He sees himself as having dodged a bullet by having come to his senses and left The Real World after four months of membership on the site, before the experience could properly derail his life. For him, the site brought none of the promised rewards and had only a negative impact: leaving him struggling and closed off from his networks, obsessed with materialistic goals he was failing to achieve, bitter and seething with misogynistic, conspiracist ideas.

“It felt like it was turning me into an incel,” he said, warning others under Tate’s influence that they were surely headed in the same direction.

“You’re going to be stuck in your home, thinking you're a victim, thinking people are out there to get everything from you,” he said. “You're gonna hate women, and hold them responsible for everything wrong in your life. You're working all the time because you think it will get you women. And then if it does, you're just going to treat her like property.”

Critics of The Real World claim that, despite its promises of expert tuition and rapid wealth, the knowledge passed on in the courses - in topics like copywriting, crypto-currency, e-commerce, content creation and AI - is at a basic level and of little value. Mahmoud said the tuition materials were “very, very basic stuff that was not worth the money, and definitely not $50 a month.”

Despite the hours he put into his coursework, the only realistic prospect for actually making money through the platform, he soon came to believe, appeared to be through the “affiliate marketing” programme, to which new members are admitted once a month, creating demand for access among members – although Mahmoud says the programme turned out not to be the money spinner he had hoped.

The “affiliate marketing” programme, Tate’s defenders and critics agree, is a critical part of Tate’s business empire. It promises subscribers the opportunity to earn money by creating social media videos – using the video editing, marketing and AI skills they’ve learned within The Real World, and drawing from a huge digital archive of Tate footage assembled for this purpose - to promote Tate and his platform on social media. After members have built up a big enough following, they’re given the right to post “affiliate links” - earning a commission from every new member recruited through their videos.

By the Tate camp’s own admissions, the practice - harnessing his legions of fans to act as his self-replicating content farm - has been an incredibly successful marketing strategy. One of the many sites promoting The Real World credits the affiliate marketing tactic as the reason Tate has become internationally famous.

“Tate was the 1st person who did this kind of unique content strategy on social media platforms,” says the site. “Tate became the most famous person on the internet because of his revolutionary marketing strategy.”

But for Tate’s critics, the strategy is deeply exploitative, cynically using impressionable kids to act as a kind of standing PR army to push the influencer’s self-serving narratives. Last month, VICE News reported on how The Real World members were instructed to create videos for a campaign intended to pressure authorities to permit Tate and his brother Tristan to leave Romania, where they are required to remain as they await trial, to visit their sick grandmother in the United States. A message on the site, posted by an instructor, offered a reward for the students who created the 20 most viewed video posts in support of the campaign.

When Mahmoud first became aware of Andrew Tate, amid the influencer’s rise to notoriety in late 2022, he had seemed a positive influence, he said. He had been leading a “chaotic” life at the time - drinking, smoking, partying too much - and Tate’s motivational message of working out, and focusing on goals, had initially helped him. He said Tate’s misogynistic messaging had also resonated with his own views at the time, as a product of a conservative, patriarchal culture, meaning he was easily sucked into his world.

But it wasn’t long before belonging to The Real World was having a negative impact. The “affiliate marketing” campus in particular, he said, was deeply exploitative, with immense pressure on members to complete their daily assigned tasks, including producing four to six videos a day.

He described a toxic, boiler room-type environment where members felt “humiliated” if they failed to make it on to the leaderboard of 25 top performers, while being subjected to regular “lessons” that “had nothing to do with course subject, and were more about brainwashing you: ‘how to be a man,’ ‘how to be influential.’” The program’s overriding ideology is reflected in trailers promoting The Real World, in which Tate declares that anyone who doesn’t join the platform has chosen “to remain a slave,” that universities are designed to program students’ minds with “insidious propaganda,” and that “the Matrix” works “very hard to bankrupt you and brainwash you.”

The red-pilled advice doled out in the group, he sees now, was harmful, cult-like, and borderline abusive: to forgo any kind of entertainment; ignore advice from anyone outside The Real World; work every waking hour.

“It’s like slave labour,” said Mahmoud.

Students are advised to go on “war mode” - short, days-long bursts of intense working with greatly reduced sleep - in order to meet their targets.

“You can leave sleep behind,” one The Real World instructor tells students in a recorded lesson that was viewed by VICE News.

“When I go into war mode, what I’ll do is I’ll shift my sleep down [to] anywhere like 3 to 5, 3 to 4 hours a night, and I am pushing like crazy towards a goal.” He suggests that, if needed, they can take a 15-minute nap in their chair for “some quick mental recovery.”

In another video shared with VICE News, a different instructor thanks students for joining him so early on “morning check-in” call - it was 2am local time for some members, he notes - and outlines how hard they are expected to work that day.

“You have stress throughout the entire day,” he says. “It’s stressful - you work and then you sleep. Rest, and stress. Rest, stress. Work, sleep. Work, sleep. There’s no in-between.

“Now obviously I’m counting eating, I’m counting drinking, talking to your mother also … but generally, the idea of rest is stupid.”

For students in the affiliate marketing campus, the work in question was to follow a very clear blueprint. Students were instructed to start social media accounts that were essentially Tate fanpages, with names referencing widely known nicknames associated with the influencer: “Wudan,” “Cobra,” “Morpheus.”

Using the editing, marketing and AI skills they’d learned in the other The Real World campuses, and drawing on a vast library of Tate video content, culled from podcast appearances along with other footage, they were required to produce and post 4-6 daily promotional videos for Tate, either showcasing his affluent lifestyle, or giving motivational messages or advice. Once their account reached the target of 2,000 followers, they would then be able to post videos demonstrating the supposed earnings that could be made from joining the site - and, crucially, a subscription link that would give them a cut of the earnings of everyone who signed up through it.

Mahmoud never made any money from the program - and says the other students he encountered on the platform had the same experience. Despite committing about 10 hours a day to the site, posting 70-something videos in total, he was only able to reach about 600 followers on his accounts.

But despite his struggles in The Real World, Mahmoud never considered there was a problem with the program, believing that it was his fault for failing to work hard enough. Any complaints about the program, or criticism of Tate himself, were unthinkable within the sycophantic world of the program.

“You can’t critique Tate inside The Real World, you can't have any negative view about any of it,” he explains. “There’s a strong aspect of ‘us or them’.. ‘inside the Matrix’ or ‘outside the Matrix.’ It really is a cult.”

It was only by accident that one day, as Mahmoud was watching a clip on Twitter of Tristan Tate being interviewed by Tucker Carlson, that the first seeds of doubt were sown. Beneath the clip was a post, by one of Tate’s many dedicated online critics, detailing evidence that, for him, threw into question the Tate brothers’ denials of the trafficking charges against them. Mahmoud describes reading the post as a “glass-shattering moment.”

“[The people in The Real World] make you believe that he's never wrong,” said Mahmoud. “But what if he was actually a human trafficker? What if he's actually guilty of those charges?”

The notion that Tate - the world famous alpha male, the Top G - might actually be guilty sent him into a tailspin, and started him trawling the internet for a broader perspective.

Like someone breaking out of a cult, he said he spent three days disoriented, barely sleeping. “I was feeling that mental dizziness you have when someone challenges your beliefs,” he said.

“And then I decided: yeah, I'm gonna quit. This is not me. This is not something that I should propagate.”

Jack Beeston, an associate at McCue Jury & Partners, a law firm handling a civil case brought by women in the UK who say they were abused by Tate, told VICE News that the apparent targeting of minors with the affiliate programme was “a grave concern both from a legal and moral perspective.”

“This could, based on the evidence we have seen, be described as the digital equivalent of grooming, and is exploitative,” said Beeston, whose firm has been calling for The Real World to be deplatformed by tech platforms that help support the site. “Also troubling is the scale. We are talking about thousands of people here.

Moreover, Beeston and other critics say, the “affiliate marketing” programme appears to have the hallmarks of a pyramid scheme - with The Real World members only standing to make money from the programme by recruiting other members on to the platform, rather than deriving any other intrinsic value from the site.

Nathan Pope is a 34-year-old Australian man who has led an online campaign against The Real World, pressuring tech giants to stop hosting content promoting the site, driven by his concern over what he sees as Tate’s alarming influence over a generation of young men.

"They are luring teenage boys into what looks to be a pyramid scheme and working them 16 hours a day,” he said. “It's madness.”

This view of The Real World is shared by at least one former insider of Tate’s apparatus. Samuel Quinones told VICE News that he had been a “founding member” of The War Room - billed by Tate as an elite network of powerful men and those who want to learn from them - about six months after it launched “because I recognized the upselling of useless courses and events, much like an MLM (multi-level marketing scheme).”

“I was never part of The Real World, but anyone with MLM experience can probably conclude that it's even worse than an MLM and more of a pyramid scheme,” he told VICE News via email.

Pope is also concerned by The Real World’s proximity to The War Room, given that leaked chat logs from the latter site show it being used to share techniques to groom women into webcam sex work. Tate previously sold courses on how to use the so-called “loverboy technique” to groom women into online sex work - an offence he now faces criminal charges for in Romania - which he branded the “Pimping Hoes Degree,” or PHD programme.

Pope fears that The Real World could be acting as the entry point into a pipeline of radical misogyny that eventually delivers young men to a forum where they are ultimately trained in sex trafficking women.

“There’s a concern that kids recruited into The Real World are upsold into the War Room, [with] courses where they are taught to traffic women into sex work,” he said.

VICE News has seen one video message directed at Tate by a student on The Real World’s chatboards where he asks for access to the PHD programme, because he is interested in setting up a webcam business himself.

The Real World’s operating strategy is wholly dependent on using platforms such as TikTok, YouTube and Instagram on which to post their promotional videos and recruit new members.

But while a raft of these companies banned Tate in August 2022 over his dangerous and misogynistic messaging, they’ve continued to allow The Real World content, often heavily featuring Tate himself, to proliferate on their platforms, enabling Tate’s operation to draw in new recruits.

That’s despite sustained campaigning led by Pope, who has repeatedly flagged the content and called on YouTube and TikTok to remove the promotional videos from their platforms, emailing executives directly with evidence of the problem.

In September, Pope’s campaigning paid some dividends. Google and Apple removed The Real World app from their online stores. But the tech companies only took action after VICE News asked questions about Pope’s campaign. Videos promoting The Real World have remained widely available on YouTube, despite the video-sharing site being owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet.

In response to questions from VICE News, a YouTube spokesperson said it had “previously terminated channels associated with Andrew Tate for multiple violations of our Community Guidelines and Terms of Service”.

“After review, we’ve terminated The Real World channel and a number of associated channels and videos for violating our Terms of Service, which prohibit prominently featuring content from a previously terminated user.”

But despite this, The Real World-branded channels, regularly publishing videos of Tate, proliferate on YouTube. One channel, with 600,000 subscribers, has published more than 600 videos and racked up more than 450 million views since it was created in December 2022, and is continuing to post videos this week.

TikTok would not comment on the record on why The Real World content remained widely available on its platform, despite its ban on Tate and his programme.

Mahmoud said that, of the major social media platforms, TikTok had a reputation among The Real World students as the most difficult to post their content on, with videos showing the faces of either of the Tate brothers typically being taken down.

Instead, they came up with workarounds: editing the videos to disguise Tate’s face, or using just his recognisable voice, or focusing on other well-known figures in his circle such as his business partner, Justin Waller.

Pope said he was frustrated by the inadequate response by the social media platforms to moderating Tate content, saying they appear to grossly underestimate the capacity of Tate’s decentralised content machine for bypassing their efforts at moderation, and misunderstand the threat posed by The Real World to young people.

“I am stunned at the lack of action,” he said. “I have supplied these companies with the information they need, but they seem to be only concerned with profit.”

Tate’s attorney Joseph McBride did not respond to questions from VICE News. But shortly after VICE News contacted McBride, Tristan Tate tweeted an apparent defence of the platform, decrying how “the MSM [mainstream media] attacks people [signing] up to The Real World, a very cheap app which is easy to unsubscribe from which is simultaneously the world’s number 1 financial literacy and education platform.”

In response to previous questions from VICE News over the allegations that The Real World was a pyramid scheme deliberately exploiting young people, McBride sent through promotional videos for the platform featuring men speaking positively about the site and the money they had made, saying the clips contradicted the “allegations about their business model.”

“You may not agree with Andrew and Tristan Tate’s message,” McBride said at the time. “But it is madness to suggest that their message of male empowerment rises to the level of criminality or dangerousness.”

Tate, who styles himself as a “hustler” par excellence, has repeatedly boasted publicly about his prowess in scamming large sums of money from gullible men in one of his other online businesses, a camgirl operation.

In one podcast appearance, he explained how he would dupe the men into thinking they were chatting online with the topless women on the screen. In fact, the women’s keyboards weren’t plugged into anything, and the men were actually having conversations with Tate and his brother Tristan, who would lead the men on romantically and persuade them to send large sums of money in hopes of meeting one day.

“They were talking to ice cold hustlers,” he laughs, referring to himself and his brother.

“We were taking their money, all of it. We were fucking milking them dry… I had these guys selling their houses, life savings, loans, all of it, to me. Give me it all.”

“Do you feel bad or no?” asks the podcast host.

“Fuck no,” replies Tate. “Don’t give a solitary fuck.”

Today, Mahmoud is just thankful that, unlike others who have devoted themselves completely to the platform, he didn’t quit his university studies while he was under Tate’s spell. Since leaving, he’s been able to rebuild his life, and is now committed to warning others about his former hero.

As a way of making amends for his previous role in spreading Tate’s toxic message, he spends a lot of time engaging the influencer’s young, gullible fans online. He confronts them with details of Tate’s past conduct and shares his own story, trying to wake them to the fact that - for all Tate’s promises of riches and the secrets of alpha masculinity - they are merely pawns, serving as a reliable income stream and biddable marketing arm for their idol.

Despite the ample evidence, most are stubbornly resistant to his efforts at deprogramming.

“I get into a lot of arguments with Tate fans. I’m trying to do it as a kind of service,” he said. “It’s like I'm speaking to my old self.”

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