Isaac Kfir, Advisory Board, International Institute for Justice and the Rule of Law and Adjunct Professor, Charles Sturt University
Recognizing that it is not gaining younger users, changes to Apple’s iOS, increased interest from policymakers, and a commitment to expand connectivity have led Facebook Inc., operating under a new parent company Meta, to look for creative ways to use its platforms and services to maintain and expand its social media and tech dominance. One solution is investing in the metaverse — a broad term coined by Neal Stephenson in his dystopian novel Snow Crush portraying an anarcho-capitalist world in which people live simultaneously in the offline world and virtual reality. The need for a symbiotic existence stems from the horridness of the physical world and the reliance on the online world for service, recreation, and labor.
From a commercial perspective, the metaverse is an evolutionary process, aimed at providing users with new experiences and ways to interact online through such technologies as augmented reality and virtual reality. Currently, the metaverse is a decentralized world that relies on hardware and software, much of which is in its infancy. Such a situation means that early investors have a tremendous opportunity to shape this realm in a manner consistent with their interests and ideas.
Constructing Any World You Wish
The synchronousness of the metaverse means that its goal is to give, “every individual who comes to the metaverse the tools to control their own experience.” In theory, the metaverse is a wonderful idea, opening a realm of positive possibilities, but it also raises the prospects that individuals would look to construct their cultural and racial world as they imagine or want. One feature of these virtual worlds is that it looks to empower ‘men to be men,’ free of ideas that Senator Josh Hawley claim weaken manhood and push men to the virtual world where men can embrace “traditional masculine virtues—things like courage, and independence, and assertiveness.” Thus, one the dangers of the metaverse is that far-right extremists could use such a space as a testing ground for their ideas, and in some extreme cases, to hone their physical abilities, which is what gangs (technology-facilitated gang violence) and groups such as the Islamic State do with first-person-shooter (FPS) games.
When thinking about the metaverse and the need for some form of a regulatory system, it is useful to recall that social media began without any substantive regulation, which has meant that extremists have been able to use these platforms to promote their messages. Moreover, the decentralized nature of social media and the ecosystem that it spawned enables extremists — whether white supremacists, Salafist-jihadists, or other extremists — to operate more freely, as the platforms are creative and innovative.
Similarities To The Gaming World
Looking at the rising phenomena of anti-social behavior in online gaming is also helpful when thinking about the dangers of the metaverse because — as shown by the Anti-Defamation League annual survey on users’ experience — harassment among adult gamers increases annually.
Online gaming platforms such as Fortnite, Minecraft, Axie Infinity, and the like, represent parts of the emerging metaverse. These platforms are sensitive to the wants and needs of their users who make increasing demands for more interactive engagements, which is why gaming platforms are constantly looking for ways to enhance users’ experiences. Fortnite, for example, came up with the CreativeMode, allowing players to create their own islands, which also gives users more ‘ownership’ of the game. A similar issue emerged with Roblox in the early 2010s when users created spaces that reflected fascist or Nazi ideas. Roblox has sought to prevent such usage, removing the recreation of the Christchurch terrorist attacks.
A Complete Ecosystem
Platforms such as Second Life, The Decentraland, and The Sandbox offer a glimpse of what the metaverse aspires to become. Some of these began as online games but now offer a complete ecosystem in which people, operating through avatars, can buy or rent digital real estate, attend virtual clubs, galleries, and more. In these spaces, individuals not only construct and live in worlds reflecting their interests, passions, and desires without any substantive regulatory system, but they can represent themselves as superhumans through their avatars (a term popularized by Stephenson in Snow Crush originating in Sanskrit to mean incarnation, though in reference to a deity, often Vishnu).
Cyber-Idealism and Right-Wing Extremists
Aspects of the metaverse as expounded by Stephenson resonate with many right-wing extremists, particularly within neoreactionists such as Curtis Yarvin, Nick Land, Peter Thiel, Patri Friedman, and the Incel community. Members, supporters, affiliates of these movements and thinkers advocate for a form of cyber-idealism that recognizes the possibilities of anarcho-capitalism and toxic masculinity. When neo reactionist and accelerationist ideas are infused within the ‘pilled’ ethos, these individuals look to construct a new world order — one that reflects their values and interests while rejecting feminism, immigration, globalization, and all the forces responsible for what they believe is the persistent assault on manhood. These ideas are explored and tested at the margins (including in mainstream online game platforms) as they do not have a way to properly test their ideas, but with the metaverse, things could change.
Proper construction of the metaverse would require thinking beyond the Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking world — something that Facebook rarely considers even though it has become central to many countries. The Facebook Papers reveal that the toxicity that exists online is expansive, necessitating a regulatory body to address hate speech in Hindi, Oromo, Bengali, Arabic, Burmese, etc. The lack of regulatory protections is made worse by the insatiable appetites of tech and social media companies to provide greater internet access through such initiatives as Google Loon and Google Fibre, whereas Amazon and Facebook are looking at their own low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites as a way to extend connectivity.
The hoopla surrounding the metaverse is why Facebook has chosen to invest $10 billion in this space and less on regulatory bodies, which currently is akin to the Wild West. Tech giants argue that too many rules discourage individuals from signing up for things, which was the case back in 2005 when there was no regulatory system in place to monitor social media and the negative effects it had on people’s lives.
The metaverse is coming and tech companies and innovative thinkers are looking for ways to bridge the hardware and software limitation, which is why we need to make sure that if we are to reap the benefits of this new realm, we must consider some form of a regulatory regime to help prevent this space from being exploited by extremists.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.