The metaverse is one of the words of the year 2021. Very few companies want to be left out and it has been the main strategy of Mark Zuckerberg’s new course; It’s no longer Facebook, now it’s Meta. Leading a life immersed in virtual reality is the basis of this concept that comes with many novelties but with well-known challenges in terms of harassment and inappropriate behavior.
We have few experiences with regard to the almost newborn metaverse but enough so that some alarms have already gone off. Chanelle Siggens is a user of the video game Population One. Wearing her Oculus Quest goggles, she was inside her digital world when another player’s avatar approached her and ejaculated on Siggens’s avatar. She asked him to stop and the player replied: “She shrugged her shoulders as if to say, ‘I don’t know what to tell you. It’s the metaverse: I’ll do what I want,” the player recalled.
It has not been the only known case. In Horizon Worlds, a person who was beta testing the virtual reality video game explained that his avatar was groped by a stranger, The Verge reported. “Sexual harassment is no joke on the internet, but being in VR adds another layer that makes the event more intense,” she wrote. “Not only did they grope me last night, but there were other people who supported this behavior that made me feel isolated in the Plaza,” he said, referring to the virtual space.
The usual harassment, but in the metaverse
When Mark Zuckerberg announced the Facebook metaverse, he promised to carry out the project with privacy and security in mind. It is not the first time that we hear these promises from the creator of the social network. For now, no specific measures have been taken to curb and prevent bullying or inappropriate behavior in the metaverse.
Some of these cases can be difficult to track if the victim does not report them because they occur in real-time and in many cases go unrecorded. The problem is the same in all VR games, and furthermore, there are few mechanisms for reporting misconduct, metaverse researchers told. In fact, a violation occurs in the VRChat video game about once every seven minutes, according to the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate.
Harassment happens in a world of virtual reality, but the situation is reminiscent of the already well-known problem of how to stop harassment, discrimination, and hate speech on social networks. The expert lawyer in digital rights Sergio Carraso commented to Hipertextual that these facts, in the end, are the same as always .” What changes is the fact that the user sees, not what is behind it? There is a network, there are some managers and communication channels, and the act that is carried out at the end can be subsumed in the regulations that already exist”, he explained.
“The fact that it is metaverses or other cases such as augmented or virtual reality, does not change what is the substance of the matter.”
A question of power and identity
Being a victim of harassment in a social network does not imply that it has a lesser impact on the victim because the aggression or harassment is not physical. Chanelle Siggens, the female victim of stalking in the video game Population One, explained that when someone reaches out and touches you without consent in a virtual reality world, “your mind is tricking you into thinking it’s happening in the real world,” and continued, “with the full metaverse, it’s going to be a lot more intense.”
Mónica Pereira, an expert in Urgency and Emergency Psychology and in Intervention with Victims of Violence, declared to this medium that mistreatment, in this case towards women, is not only about the damage it can do physically as a matter of personal identity. “We are talking about a show of superiority of someone who attacks you, even if it is through social networks or an avatar, they want to show you that they are superior to you and that they want to use you,” she explained. She clarified that this affects the identity as a person and as a woman.
“In the end, it’s a way of telling you ‘you’re worth nothing and I can manipulate and mistreat you whenever I want. That’s why they affect you so much, even if it’s through networks or even the avatar I’ve created on the social network. (. ..) It generates the feeling that there is no safe place for me (not even a virtual place) and causes mistrust in the world in general”.
Some unanswered complaints
In The New York Times report, the head of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, Callum Hood, claimed that he spent weeks recording VRChat interactions. He entered virtual communities where avatars can play with each other or virtual public spaces where they meet to talk. In 11 hours, Hood logged 100 problematic incidents such as sexual or violent threats. Some of them even involved children under the age of 13.
After his investigation, he informed Oculus, as well as VRChat, of the terms of service violations, but has not received a response. “VRChat is not secure because its developers and Facebook have not implemented basic measures to ensure that abusive users cannot access their services,” he said. “They have created a safe haven for abusive users while inviting minors into the metaverse,” she warned.
A story known beyond the metaverse
Cases of bullying and inappropriate behavior are beginning to be registered in the metaverse. It is a fact and it is not a surprise. If we take into account the trajectory of social networks with regard to the treatment of these cases, we know that it is not an easy task for all complaints to be answered.
There are still challenges to deal with platforms that have been used by millions of people every day for years. It is not surprising, therefore, that the case is repeated (with nuances) in virtual reality and in the metaverse. For now, the difficulty is also being repeated when it comes to stopping these behaviors decisively.
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