Metaverse, your ruthless universe – WE DEMAIN

Sexual, homophobic or racist comments, conspiracy theories, firearms, sexual harassment and even assaults… the metaverse dreamed up by Mark Zuckerberg, this fun space, for exchanges and collaborations, is a far cry from what really happens there. This virtual universe is still in beta phase and only available in the United States and Canada for now. Still in test but already toxic. It is in any case the very gloomy assessment drawn by the NGO SumOfUsa real counter-power for large companies.

In a study unveiled at the end of May 2022 and called “Metaverse: another cesspool of toxic content” (Metaverse, another cesspool of toxic content), SumOfUs points out the chaotic beginnings of the virtual world of Meta/Facebook. A metaverse in which, however, some 10 billion dollars have been invested indirectly, through the Facebook Reality Labs branch. “With only 300,000 users, it’s remarkable how quickly Horizon Worlds has become a breeding ground for harmful content. Without urgent action, it will only get worse. […] At this rate, it’s entirely possible that the metaverse will transform into an even darker and more toxic environment.”

Sexually assaulted less than an hour after arriving in the metaverse

The most striking testimony in this report is undoubtedly that of one of the SumOfUs researchers. Having registered for less than an hour in Horizon Worlds, she was invited to a private party where she was “sexually assaulted” by another metaverse user. A few moments before, his new “friends” had advised him to deactivate personal border. This is a feature deployed by Meta last February which aims, precisely, to fight against sexual harassment.

Just after she arrived in a side room, a male figure kept rubbing her from behind. He urged her to “turn around so he can do it from behind”. Meanwhile, other avatars were watching what was happening through the window. And that a character, also present in the room, watched and distributed virtual vodka. SumOfUs unveiled a video of the incidentfilmed for 28 seconds from the researcher’s point of view. You can see these problematic behaviors and hear obscene comments.

A virtual assault with very real repercussions

This “virtual sexual assault” remains quite relative insofar as the avatars in Horizon Worlds do not possess a body below the belt. There is always that the act was clearly sexual, not consensual. The researcher – who had enrolled in the metaverse to study social behaviors – described the experience as “bewildering and confusing”. “It matters despite everything, it still has real impact on usersexplained Vicky Wyatt, director of SumOfUs, to the BBC.

These repercussions are all the more real since the assaulted researcher specifies that, when her personal protection bubble is deactivated, when an avatar touches you, the controllers associated with the virtual reality headset vibrate. This therefore creates the effect of a real aggression which can be disorienting due to the physical experience lived during the virtual aggression. “It happened so fast that I did a kind of dissociation. “Part of my brain was wondering what was going on, explained the researcher. Another part was telling me it wasn’t a real body. And yet another that it was important for my research”

Horizon Worlds: all the skids are allowed

This is not the first time that women have reported sexual assault in the virtual world of Meta. In 2021, Nina Jane Patel, a psychotherapist and researcher, said she too was sexually assaulted on Horizon Worlds. She had claimed to have been “virtually gang raped” by a group of 3-4 avatars less than 60 seconds after logging into the metaverse. She testified to being “aggressively grabbed” and “verbally and sexually assaulted”, becoming the target of suggestive language and lewd remarks due to her avatar’s simple feminine appearance. Other people also reported inappropriate behavior and virtual sexual assaults that were quite similar.

Also, virtual sexual assaults aren’t the only issues facing the metaverse. SumOfUs points out in its report that many problematic comments were found by their researchers. In the “private rooms” of Horizon World, it seems quite common to see:

  • Homophobic, racist and sexist remarks
  • Gun violence
  • Conspiratorial arguments (US election fraud, anti-vaccine arguments, etc.)
  • Attempts to sell illegal products (medicines, drugs, etc.)

Moderation in the metaverse: mission impossible?

And obviously the moderation system of the metaverse of Meta seems to be failing. In the vast majority of cases where inappropriate behavior was reported, system moderators eventually dismissed the complainants, arguing that the rules had not been broken. The same moderation problems that Facebook is experiencing therefore seem to be repeated in the Horizon Worlds.

“Instead of learning from its mistakes, Meta is moving through the metaverse without a clear plan to reduce harmful content and behavior, misinformation and hate speech”, can we read in the report of the NGO SumOfUs. Andrew Bosworth, Meta’s Chief Tech Officer, admitted in an internal memo that moderation in the metaverse “at any significant scale is virtually impossible.”

Between Mark Zuckerberg’s dream – “The dream of feeling present with the people who are dear to us” – and reality, even virtual reality, the gap is already wide. We will have to quickly find safeguards to avoid seeing the emergence a Web3 without faith or law. A new “conquest of the west”, without the Eldorado.

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Metaverse, your ruthless universe – WE DEMAIN


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