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Das Online-Magazin der Angestellten Schweiz

The Dark Sides of the Metaverse

Metaverses promise us a golden future with countless new possibilities – including a brave new world of work. But this can only become reality if we get to grips with the many problems currently facing us. We show you where the difficulties lie and where action is needed.

“Within the first 10 minutes of putting on a VR (VR = virtual reality) headset and entering a chat room, I saw underage kids simulating oral sex on each other. I experienced sexual harassment, racism and rape jokes. At one point, I heard someone say: ‘I like little girls from the age of nine to 12: that’s just my thing.‘” This horror trip was experienced by broadcast journalist and model Yinka Bokinni when she posed as a 13-year-old in order to join a metaverse (citations from an article in the Guardian, see also article and a video in the Sun). There, she also came across “one user who was spewing the most disgusting language I’ve ever heard in my life, to the point we couldn’t even broadcast what he was saying.” At one point, seven users surrounded Bokinni and tried to force her to remove her safety shield so they could touch her body. “I tried to run away, but they backed me up against a wall, trying to grab at me, making sexual comments. It was the virtual equivalent of sexual assault”, Bokinni reports in the Guardian.

Yinka Bokinni is not an isolated case. British scientist Nina Jane Patel tested Meta's VR world “Horizon Venues”. She chose an avatar that visually resembled her. Within a minute of entering the virtual lobby room, she was sexually harassed, she told the Austrian newspaper Der Standard. Three male avatars circled her while a fourth took selfies of the scene. Her request to these male avatars to stop even intensified the attacks. "My first reaction was to go into shock."

These are just two examples, more can be found in reports on the internet.

VR accentuates bad behavior

Metaverses, at least in their present form, seem to have the same problems with sexism, misogyny, racism etc., that the social media have had for a long time. However, as the two examples demonstrate, the experience in the virtual reality of the metaverse seems to be much worse – because it is almost physically felt like in the real world. Very scary! And it will get even scarier, the more real the virtual reality will feel.

Sexism and racism are not the only problems that can be accentuated in virtual reality. Bullying is also likely to become a big issue. And of course, criminals will find countless ways to steal from, rip off or blackmail other people in the metaverse.

Even when metaverses are used in protected settings at work, difficulties may arise, for example, with discrimination, gender identity, stereotyping, or harassment. However, such problems can certainly be solved more easily in business metaverses than in metaverses open to all.

From Bad to Worse

It seems that many people take their worst behavior from the real world into the metaverse and discard all inhibitions there. As we have made many real world problems bigger with social media we are now about to make them even bigger with metaverses. The main victims are, once more, children, youths, women and minorities.

In the real world, Yinka Bokinni and Nina Jane Patel would report their case to the police or the operator of the location where it happened. But in the metaverse? Is anyone even responsible there? Where can I turn? This does not seem to be clear at all (yet). And reporting an incident in the metaverse is more difficult than in the real world because it is ("only") avatars that attack – the real people behind them are largely unknown. Victims hardly record everything that is said in the virtual space and thus have nothing in hand to prove an attack.

There is only one solution of the problem: make sure incidents do not happen in the first place. Even if Mark Zuckerberg's Meta and other providers officially declare that they do not tolerate sexism, racism, nationalism, hate speech etc. in their metaverses, the reality is quite different. This was impressively proven by an experiment conducted by Buzzfeed News. It created a virtual space in Meta's metaverse with content that is banned on Facebook and Instagram. The room remained private and was only accessible to a handful of Buzzfeed editors. For 36 hours, nothing was discovered by Meta. Then one of the editors reported the room to the moderation team. Nothing happened for two more days. Only after a third report an answer arrived: the room would not violate the content guidelines. After Buzzfeed contacted the communications department, the room was finally closed.

The metaverse needs to be monitored – by real people

If we fail to install effective protection in metaverses, especially for children, women, and minorities, then we’ll run the risk of the virtual world becoming even more horrific than the real one. If sexual attacks, racist jokes and bullying become part of everyday life in virtual reality, we’ll run the risk of all of us becoming numb and starting to behave in the same way in the real world.

Building in effective protection will be probably the biggest challenge for all partners involved in metaverses: the providers and operators of the platforms, the service providers, and the authorities which regulate metaverses. To some extent, protective measures can certainly be programmed in. But without monitoring by attentive, decent, empathetic, real people it will hardly work.

Hansjörg Schmid

Montag, 13. Jun 2022

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