How to make the metaverse more inclusive

Breigha Adeyemo is a doctoral candidate in communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago. This editorial was originally published on The conversation.

Marginalized people often suffer the most from the unintended consequences of new technologies. For example, algorithms that automatically make decisions about who can see what content or how images are interpreted suffer from racial and gender bias. People with multiple marginalized identities, such as blacks and people with disabilities, are even more at risk than those with a single marginalized identity.

That’s why when Mark Zuckerberg laid out his vision for the metaverse – a network of virtual environments in which many people can interact with each other and with digital objects – and said it would affect all products built by the business, I was scared. As a researcher who studies the intersections of race, technology, and democracy – and as a black woman – I think it’s important to carefully examine the values ​​that are encoded in this next-gen internet.

Problems are already emerging. Avatars, the graphic characters that people can create or purchase to represent themselves in virtual environments, are priced differently depending on the perceived race of the avatar, and racist and sexist harassment arises in immersive pre-metaverse environments. ‘today.

To ensure that this next iteration of the Internet is inclusive and works for everyone, it will require people in marginalized communities to take the lead in shaping it. It will also require strong regulation for Big Techs to be accountable for the public interest. Without it, the metaverse is at risk of inheriting today’s social media problems, if not getting worse.

Utopian visions against harsh realities

The utopian visions of the early days of the internet generally held that life online would be radically different from life in the physical world. For example, people saw the Internet as a way to escape certain parts of their identity, such as distinctions of race, gender, and class. In reality, the Internet is far from raceless.

While techno-utopias communicate desired visions of the future, the reality of new technologies often does not live up to these visions. In fact, the internet has caused new forms of harm to society, such as the automated dissemination of propaganda on social media and the bias in the algorithms that shape your online experience.

Zuckerberg described the Metaverse as a more immersive and embodied Internet that “will unlock a lot of amazing new experiences.” This is a vision not only of a future Internet, but of a future way of life. As off target as this vision may be, the metaverse is likely, like previous versions of the internet and social media, to have widespread consequences that will transform the way people socialize, travel, learn, work and play.

The question is, will these consequences be the same for everyone? History suggests the answer is no.

Technology is never neutral

Widely used technologies often assume white male identities and bodies by default. MIT computer scientist Joy Buolomwini has shown that facial recognition software works less well in women and even more in darker-faced women. Other studies have confirmed this.

Whiteness is built into these technologies by default, even in the absence of race as a category for machine learning algorithms. Unfortunately, racism and technology often go hand in hand. Black female politicians and journalists have been disproportionately targeted with abusive or problematic tweets, and black and Latino voters have been targeted in online disinformation campaigns during the 2020 election cycle.

This historic relationship between race and technology leaves me preoccupied with the metaverse. If the Metaverse is meant to be an embodied version of the Internet, as Zuckerberg described it, does that mean that already marginalized people will experience new forms of harm?

Facebook and its relationship with blacks

The general relationship between technology and racism is only part of the story. Meta has bad relationships with black users of its Facebook platform, and with black women in particular.

In 2016, journalists at ProPublica discovered that advertisers on Facebook’s advertising portal could exclude groups of people who saw their ads based on the race of users or what Facebook called “ethnic affinity.” This option received a lot of criticism because Facebook does not ask its users for their race, which means that users are assigned an “ethnic affinity” based on their engagement on the platform, such as the pages and posts that they are. ‘they like.

In other words, Facebook was essentially racially profiling its users based on what they do and like on its platform, creating the opportunity for advertisers to discriminate against people based on their race. Facebook has since updated its ad targeting categories to no longer include “ethnic affinities”.

However, advertisers can still target people based on their presumed race through race proxies, which use combinations of user interests to infer races. For example, if an advertiser sees in Facebook data that you have expressed an interest in African American culture and the BET Awards, they may infer that you are black and target you with ads for products they want to market. with blacks.

Worse yet, Facebook frequently deleted comments from black women who spoke out against racism and sexism. Ironically, black women’s comments on racism and sexism are being censored – colloquially known as fuck themselves – for blatantly violating Facebook’s policies against hate speech. This is part of a larger trend within online platforms of black women being punished for voicing concerns and demanding justice in digital spaces.

According to a recent Washington post report, Facebook knew its algorithm was disproportionately harming black users, but chose to do nothing.

In an interview with Vishal Shah, vice president of Meta’s Metaverse, National Public Radio host Audie Cornish asked, “If you can’t handle Instagram comments, how can you handle the t-shirt that contains hate speech in the metaverse? How do you deal with the gathering of hate that might be happening in the Metaverse? Likewise, if black people are punished for speaking out against racism and sexism online, then how can they do so in the metaverse?

Ensuring the metaverse is inclusive and promotes democratic values ​​rather than threatening democracy requires design justice and regulation of social media.

Design justice puts people who do not hold power in society at the center of the design process to avoid perpetuating existing inequalities. It also means starting with a consideration of the values ​​and principles to guide the design.

Federal laws have protected social media companies from all liability for the posts and actions of users on their platforms. This means that they have the right but not the responsibility to control their sites. The regulation of Big Techs is crucial to tackling the problems of social media today, and at least as important before they build and control the next generation of the Internet.

I’m not against the metaverse. I am for a democratically responsible metaverse. For that to happen, however, I say there must be better regulatory frameworks in place for internet companies and fairer design processes so that technology doesn’t continue to correlate with racism.

As it stands, the benefits of the Metaverse don’t outweigh its costs to me. But it doesn’t have to stay that way.


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