A Flurry of Mugging, Racism, and Rape Jokes: My Nightmarish Journey Through the Metaverse | Television
BBefore entering the metaverse, I had read a few articles about it and people didn’t have the nicest things to say. But I wanted to see if that was true, or if people were just trying to find negativity. I’m a big user of social media, so a 3D virtual space where you can interact with other people – where artists do concerts and fashion houses do shows? It’s exciting for me!
But within the first 10 minutes of putting on a VR headset and entering a chat room, I saw underage children simulating oral sex on each other. I was the victim of sexual harassment, racism and rape jokes. At one point, I heard someone say, “I like little girls 9 to 12: that’s my thing.
I came across a user who was spitting the most disgusting language I’ve ever heard in my life, to the point that we couldn’t even stream what he was saying. I speak extreme racism – hate speech, listing the types of people he hated, the types of people he wanted to kill. It was so violent. And it all happened in a room that I was able to access despite using a profile that I had listed as being 13 years old.
It got to the point that I was really starting to worry about how bad it was making our documentary. I was aware that we needed balance, so I found myself desperately trying to find good things to hold on to. But the bad things kept coming so thick and so fast. I have not asked any of it, I just existed in that space.
I went to chat rooms and people were scolding me, actually yelling at me. At one point, seven users surrounded me and tried to force me to remove my security shield so they could do things to my body. I tried to run away, but they pressed me against a wall, trying to grab me, making sexual comments. It was the virtual equivalent of a sexual assault.
I know it’s not real, but when you wear these headphones, you really feel like you’re there – you can hear their real voices, and everywhere you move your head, the world travels with you. It tricks your brain into thinking you’re really experiencing it. You forget it’s not real. It’s so intimidating.
A bigger problem is the difficulty of reporting this kind of behavior. You need names, identities, some kind of proof. But when you witness something that upsets you, your first thought isn’t necessarily, “Let me record this conversation so I can report it and they can take action.” The way they expect you to complain makes no sense. I just asked myself: do I feel like I can protect myself in this environment? Could the average user? Could the children? And for now: no, I don’t think they can.
Using this profile that I had set at 13, I was able to access all sorts of things that I shouldn’t have had. I was using an app that says it’s suitable for kids seven and up, but I kept coming across rooms where people were spinning, twerking, and faking sex. Users aged 13 should not be able to access this room. Seven year olds should not be able to access this room. But as things stand, they can.
The worst part is how numb you become. The flippant way people used extremely violent, homophobic, racist, sexist language meant that after my third or fourth dive into the metaverse, I had become desensitized to it. You could see this happening with other people too. There were rooms where the most racist conversations were going on, and other people were just relaxing, not paying attention. It is a space in which he has normalized.
When people act like sexual assault on you, I know it’s not real. I get it – I can’t really feel them touching me. But these people are there in their homes, physically performing this sexual assault – using their hands to grab you or push you against a wall.
It breaks down the wall between real and virtual behavior. If they’re so cool and calm about sexually abusing people online, if it’s something they keep doing and getting away with it, what’s stopping them from doing it? do in the real world?
When I reached out to the apps, they explained how trust and security are at the heart of what they do. They claim to work hard to moderate their platforms (Meta is introducing parental controls, for example) and create a welcoming environment. One even clarified that it does not allow underage users to create accounts.
There’s no doubt that some metaverse apps are better at moderating content than the ones I’ve tried. But the fact is that we need legal change. There is an online safety bill coming, and it needs to hold the creators of this technology more accountable. Many of these chat rooms are user-generated content, and at this time the responsibility lies with the users to moderate the content. Given how toxic the environment has become and how horrible behavior you’re dealing with, it just seems impossible – like trying to clean up the ocean.
I don’t think it’s too much to ask that when I enter the metaverse I don’t get racially abused. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that you do something about your product being covered by one star reviews on the App Store, saying it’s heaven for pedophiles. And I don’t think it’s too much to ask that it’s safe enough that people like me don’t have to make documentaries about how dangerous your products are.