Marginalized people often suffer the most from the unintended consequences of new technologies. For example, algorithms that automatically decide who can see what content or how images are commented suffer from racial and gender biases. People with multiple marginalized identities, such as blacks and people with disabilities, are at greater risk than those with a single marginalized identity.
That’s why I was scared when Mark Zuckerberg laid out his vision for the metaverse—a network of virtual environments where many people can interact with each other and with digital objects—and said it would touch every product the company builds. As a researcher studying the intersections of race, technology, and democracy—and as a black woman—I believe it is important to carefully consider the values encoded in this new generation of the internet.
Problems are already emerging. Avatars, graphic characters that people can create or purchase to represent themselves in virtual environments, are valued differently based on the avatar’s perceived race, and racist and sexist harassment is on the rise in today’s pre-metaverse immersive environments.
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. Regulation with teeth will also be required to keep Big Tech accountable to the public interest. Without them, the metaverse risks inheriting the problems of today’s social media, if not something worse.
Utopian visions and harsh realities
In the early days of the Internet, utopian visions typically assumed that life online would be radically different from life in the physical world. For example, people envisioned the Internet as a way to escape parts of their identity, such as differences in race, gender, and class. In fact, the internet is far from race-free.
While techno-utopias convey desirable visions of the future, the reality of new technologies often does not match these visions. In fact, the internet has brought new harms to society, such as the automated spread of propaganda on social media and bias in the algorithms that shape your online experience.
Zuckerberg described the metaverse as a more immersive, embodied internet that would “open up so many amazing new experiences.” This is a vision not only of the future internet, but also of the future way of life. While this view is off target, the metaverse, like earlier versions of the internet and social media, could have far-reaching consequences that will change the way people socialize, travel, learn, work, and play.
The question is, will these results be the same for everyone? History suggests the answer is no.
Technology is never neutral
Widespread technologies often default to white male identities and bodies. MIT computer scientist Joy Buolomwini showed that facial recognition software performed worse on women, especially women with black faces. Other studies have confirmed this.
Even without race as a category for machine learning algorithms, whiteness is built into these technologies by default. Unfortunately, racism and technology often go hand in hand. Black female politicians and journalists have been disproportionately targeted by offensive or problematic tweets, and black and Latino voters have been targeted in online disinformation campaigns during the 2020 election cycle.
This historical connection between race and technology worries me about the metaverse. If the metaverse is, as Zuckerberg describes it, an embodied version of the internet, does this mean that already marginalized people will face new forms of harm?
Facebook and its relationship with black people
The general connection between technology and racism is only part of the story. Meta has a bad relationship with black users on the Facebook platform, especially black women.
In 2016, ProPublica reporters found that advertisers on Facebook’s ad portal could exclude groups of people from seeing their ads based on users’ race or what Facebook calls “ethnic affinity.” The option was pushed back a lot because Facebook didn’t ask its users about their race, meaning users were assigned an “ethnic affinity” based on their presence on the platform, such as which pages and posts they liked.
In other words, Facebook was racially profiling users based on what they did and liked on its platform, allowing advertisers to target 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 likely race through race proxies, which use a combination of users’ interests to infer races. For example, if an advertiser sees from Facebook data that you are interested 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.
To make matters worse, Facebook has frequently deleted comments by black women that speak out against racism and sexism. Ironically, racist and sexist comments by black women are censored in violation of Facebook’s hate speech policy. This is part of a larger trend in online platforms of black women being punished for voicing their concerns and demanding justice in digital spaces.
According to a recent report by the Washington Post, Facebook knew its algorithm disproportionately harmed black users, but chose to do nothing.
A democratically accountable metaverse
In an interview with Vishal Shah, Vice President of Metaverse at Meta, National Public Radio host Audie Cornish asked, “If you can’t control comments on Instagram, how can you control a hate shirt in the metaverse. ? How can you handle the hate rally that might happen in the metaverse?” Similarly, if black people are punished for speaking out against racism and sexism on the internet, then how can they do so in the metaverse?
Ensuring that the metaverse is inclusive and promotes democratic values rather than threatening democracy requires fair design and social media regulation.
Design justice places disempowered people 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 protect social media companies from liability for users’ posts and actions on their platforms. This means they have the right, but not the responsibility, to police their site. Regulating Big Tech is critical to confronting the challenges of social media today, and at least before they build and govern the next generation of the Internet.
Metaverse and me
I’m not against the metaverse. I’m all for a democratically accountable metaverse. For this to happen, I argue that there needs to be better regulatory frameworks and fairer design processes for internet companies so that technology does not continue to be associated with racism.
By the way, the benefits of the metaverse do not outweigh its costs for me. But it shouldn’t stay that way. DM/ML
This story was first published Conversation.
Breigha Adeyemo is a doctoral candidate in communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago.