I’m a black woman and the metaverse scares me. Here’s how to make the next iteration of the internet inclusive

Marginalized people are often those who 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 who have multiple marginalized identities, such as being black and disabled, are at even greater risk than those with a single marginalized identity.

That’s why, when in October 2021, 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 touch all products that the company builds, 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-generation internet.

Problems are already arising. Avatars, graphic characters that people can create or purchase to represent themselves in virtual environments, are priced differently based on the perceived race of the avatar, and racial and gender-based harassment is surfacing in pre-immersive environments. metaverse today.

Ensuring that this next iteration of the Internet is inclusive and works for everyone will require people from marginalized communities to take the lead in shaping it. It will also require heavy-handed regulation to keep Big Tech accountable to the public interest. Without these, the metaverse risks inheriting today’s social media problems, if not getting worse.

A racial divide is already emerging in the value of avatars that represent users in virtual environments. (Yuoak/DigitalVision Vectors via Getty Images)

Utopian visions versus harsh realities

Utopian visions of the early 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 race, gender, and class distinctions. In reality, the internet is far from raceless.

While techno-utopias communicate desired visions of the future, the reality of new technologies often falls short of those visions. In fact, the internet has brought new forms of harm to society, such as the automated dissemination of social media propaganda and biases in the algorithms that shape your online experience.

Zuckerberg described the metaverse as a more immersive, embodied internet that will “unlock many amazing new experiences.” It is a vision not just of a future Internet, but of a future way of life. As off-target as that view may be, the metaverse is likely – like earlier 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 that white male identities and bodies are the default. MIT computer scientist Joy Buolomwini has shown that facial recognition software works less well on women and even more so on women with darker faces. Other studies have confirmed this.

Whiteness is built in as a flaw in these technologies, even in the absence of race as a category for machine learning algorithms. Unfortunately, racism and technology often go hand in hand. Black women 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 people who are already marginalized will experience new forms of harm?

Facebook and its relationship with black people

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

In 2016, ProPublica reporters found that advertisers on Facebook’s advertising portal could exclude groups of people who see their ads based on users’ race, or what Facebook calls “ethnic affinity.” This option has received a lot of pushback because Facebook doesn’t ask its users about their race, which means users are assigned an “ethnic affinity” based on their engagement on the platform, such as the pages and posts that they share. they loved.

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 affinity”.

However, advertisers are still able to 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 from 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 wants to market to black people.

Worse, Facebook frequently deleted comments from black women who spoke out against racism and sexism. Ironically, black women’s comments about racism and sexism are being censored — colloquially known as getting zuckered — for ostensibly violating Facebook’s policies against hate speech. It’s part of a larger trend within online platforms of black women being punished for voicing their concerns and seeking 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.

A democratically responsible metaverse

In an interview with Metaverse VP Vishal Shah, former National Public Radio host Audie Cornish asked, “If you can’t handle the comments on Instagram, how can you handle the T-shirt. that contains hate speech in the metaverse? How can you deal with the gathering of hate that might occur in the metaverse?” Similarly, if black people are being punished for speaking out against racism and sexism online, then how can they do it in the metaverse?

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

Design justice places 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 values ​​and principles to guide design.

Federal laws have shielded social media companies from liability for users’ posts and actions on their platforms. This means that they have the right but not the responsibility to monitor their sites. Regulating Big Tech is crucial to confronting social media issues today, and at least as important before they build and control the next generation of the Internet.

The metaverse and me

I am not against the metaverse. I am for a democratically responsible metaverse. For this to happen, however, I argue that there must be better regulatory frameworks in place for internet companies and fairer design processes so that technology does not continue to be correlated 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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