Marginalized people often suffer the most from the unintended consequences of new technologies. For example, algorithms that automatically make decisions about who can see content or how to interpret images suffer from racial and gender biases. People with multiple marginalized identities, such as being black and people with disabilities, are 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 where many people can interact with each other and digital things – and said it would touch every product the company makes, I was apprehensive. As a researcher who studies the intersections of race, technology and democracy – and as a black woman – I believe it is important to think carefully about the values that are encoded in this next generation of the Internet.
Problems are already appearing. Avatars, which are graphic characters that people can create or purchase to represent themselves in virtual environments, are priced differently based on the avatar’s perceived ethnicity, and racial harassment and sexual harassment are prevalent in the pre-metaverse immersive environments today.
Ensuring that this next iteration of the Internet is inclusive and one-size-fits-all requires that people from marginalized communities take the lead in shaping it. It would also require an organization with teeth to keep big tech companies accountable to the public interest. Without these, the metaverse risks inheriting today’s social media problems, if not becoming something worse.
Utopian visions versus hard facts
Utopian visionaries in the early days of the Internet held that life on the Internet would be radically different from life in the physical world. For example, people have envisioned the Internet as a way to escape parts of their identity, such as race, gender, and class discrimination. In fact, the internet is far from racist.
While technical utopias convey desired visions of the future, the reality of new technologies often falls short of these visions. Indeed, the Internet has brought new forms of harm to society, such as automated posting of propaganda on social media and bias in the algorithms that shape your online experience.
Zuckerberg described the metaverse as a more engaging and embodied Internet that “will open up a lot of amazing new experiences.” This is a vision not just of the internet in the future, but of the way of life in the future. Although this vision may be off-target, the metaverse—like in previous versions of the internet and social media—is likely to have wide-ranging consequences that will change how people socialize, travel, learn, work and play.
The question is, will these consequences be the same for all? History indicates that the answer is no.
Technology is never neutral
Widely used techniques often assume that white males’ identities and bodies are the default. MIT computer scientist Joy Buolomwini has shown that facial recognition software performs worse on women and more so on women with darker faces. Other studies have confirmed this.
Whiteness is included as a default in these technologies, even when there is no race as a category for machine learning algorithms. Unfortunately, racism and technology often go hand in hand. Black women politicians and journalists were disproportionately targeted with offensive or problematic tweets, and black and Latino voters were targeted in online disinformation campaigns during the 2020 election cycle.
This historical relationship between race and technology makes me concerned about metaverses. If the metaverse is meant to be an embodied version of the internet, as Zuckerberg has described it, does that mean that already marginalized people will face new forms of harm?
Facebook and its relationship to blacks
The general relationship between technology and racism is only part of the story. Meta has a poor relationship with Black users on its Facebook platform, and with Black women in particular.
In 2016, ProPublica reporters found that advertisers on the Facebook ad portal could exclude groups of people who see their ads based on users’ ethnicity, or what Facebook calls “racial affinity.” This option received a lot of opposition because Facebook does not ask its users about their ethnicity, which means that users are assigned an “racial affinity” based on their interaction on the platform, such as the pages and posts they have liked.
In other words, Facebook was primarily racially profiling its users based on what they do and like on its platform, which has provided the opportunity for advertisers to discriminate against people based on their race. Facebook has since updated its ad targeting categories to not include “racial affiliations.”
However, advertisers are still able to target people based on their supposed race through race agents, which use groups of users’ 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 can infer that you are black and target you with ads for products they want to market to black people.
Even worse, Facebook has frequently removed comments from black women who speak out against racism and sexism. Ironically, black women’s comments about racism and sexism are being censored — colloquially known as annoyance — for ostensibly violating Facebook’s policies against hate speech. This is part of a larger trend within online platforms to punish black women for expressing their 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 not to do anything.
Democratically responsible metaverse
In an interview with Vishal Shah, Vice President of Metaverse at Meta, National Public Radio presenter Audie Cornish asked, “If you can’t handle comments on Instagram, how do you deal with a T-shirt containing hate speech in the metaverse? How do you handle a rally? Hate that might happen in the metaverse?” Likewise, if blacks are punished for speaking out against racism and sexism online, how can they do so 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 the powerless in society at the center of the design process to avoid perpetuating existing inequalities. It also means starting with an examination of the values and principles to guide design.
Federal laws protect 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 tech giants is crucial to confronting today’s social media problems, and at least as important before building and controlling the next generation of the Internet.
metaverse and me
I am not against metaverses. I’m with metaverses democratically accountable. For that to happen, though, I stress that there must be better regulatory frameworks in place for internet companies and more design processes just so that technology does not continue to be associated with racism.
As it stands, the benefits of the metaverse never outweigh its costs to me. But it shouldn’t stay that way.
This article has been republished from The Conversation.