A recent report shows that Meta didn’t just ignore early complaints about women getting sexually assaulted in the metaverse — they told one victim it was her fault.
I believe that the vast majority of men in the tech sector support women’s rights and safety. But women’s actual experiences of tech platforms, including the immersive worlds of the metaverse, provide a lot of evidence that these values aren’t translating into action.
It’s clear that the next evolution of our civilization will be virtual. Banks like Citi and Goldman Sachs say the metaverse could be worth more than US $8 trillion by 2030, with billions of users, and the fact that so many big brands are investing heavily puts these lofty estimates in the realm of possibility.
But imagine socializing, going to work, or launching a new business in a place where sexual assault and hate-filled harassment are unpunished, ignored, and the basic right to a safe environment no longer exists. Right now, this is the metaverse — and we can’t let it continue this way.
A new report from advocacy organization Sum of Us shows just how bad the situation is. The title is “The metaverse — another cesspool of toxic content”, just for an indication. Women are being harassed and stalked, their avatars assaulted in horrifying ways, and are generally punished for being female in what was supposed to be an environment for the best kinds of creativity and innovation.
Instead, it’s becoming a place where some men feel free to indulge their worst impulses. In addition to the rampant abuse of women — which a researcher for Sum of Us experienced first-hand when venturing into Echo VR, a Meta platform — hate speech is disturbingly common, children are being exposed to inappropriate content like pornography, and discrimination against LGBTQ people is epidemic.
Why has it gotten this bad? Despite Meta’s billions spent on metaverse development last year, the company has had a massive failure when it comes to keeping its users safe and educating them about the protective features that already exist. Despite the company’s age restrictions, its platforms are full of minors, leaving a wide opening for predators.
An opaque and ineffective reporting system for bad behavior gives people little comfort that meaningful action is being taken, even in extreme cases — and there’s good reason for doubt. In a horrible twist on the classic “she was asking for it”, a beta tester of Horizon Worlds was reportedly groped by a man and then blamed by Meta for the incident for not taking enough precautions, with no repercussions for the offender.
“Meta has repeatedly demonstrated that it is unable to adequately monitor and respond to harmful content on Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp — so it is no surprise that it is already failing on the Metaverse too.”
— Sum of Us Report, May 2022
Meta had an important opportunity to learn from her concerns and build better, and they chose to ignore it, to the company’s detriment. Most platforms aren’t being moderated, users aren’t adequately protected from contact or content, and the resulting anarchy will cause women and many other groups to flee, excluded from the social and economic opportunities the metaverse could, in a better world, offer to everyone.
The more idealistic visions for the metaverse describe a place of infinite potential — one without the barriers and borders that currently limit our real-life freedoms and opportunities, and where new forms of entrepreneurship, art, and community can flourish.
But without inclusion, the metaverse can’t be anything of real value — it will just be a shinier, dressed-up version of the same hate-filled environments already found all over the web, ones that are radicalizing violent incels and white supremacists at an increasing rate.
Enforcement of real protections and a virtual social contract that crosses all platforms has to happen before the metaverse can reach anything like the multi-trillion-dollar potentials being predicted. Gucci and Samsung might be spending millions on their metaverse presences, but you can’t shift a majority of the digital economy onto platforms rapidly becoming a dangerous dystopia for women, children and minority groups.
Our virtual worlds need real accountability — or the metaverse will quickly become just another dead tech buzzword, and we’ll never know what amazing things it could have become.
Read the entire Sum of Us report here: link