Woman Groped on Meta Platform’s (Formally Facebook) New VR System, Company Admits It Can’t Control Behavior of Users

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

Meta CEO blames victim for failure to use safety feature but admits VR is toxic for women and minorities after groping incident

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Avaria, fantastical bargain center of the metaverse 24 (CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/)Torley/flickr

In October, Mark Zuckerberg announced he was renaming Facebook. It would become known as Meta Platforms. This new platform would be a virtual reality space comprised of interlocking worlds where people could play, work, socialize or visit exotic locations. It will essentially be a 3-D version of the internet which you can enter and experience as if you are experiencing real life.

For those able to buy the $300 headsets needed to experience this VR reality, they can move between the worlds created by different companies.

"A lot of the metaverse experience is going to be around being able to teleport from one experience to another," Zuckerberg says.

Last week Meta Platforms launched Horizon Worlds, a VR platform, made available to anyone in the U.S. and Canada over the age of 18.

"Our vision for Horizon Worlds is to bring to life a creator-friendly VR space with best-in-class social world-building tools," the launch announcement for Horizon Worlds said. "And we've spent the past year developing those tools and improving them based on creator feedback."

What the company unfortunately hasn’t included is stronger security to prevent harassment of those using the platform, and support for such behavior from others participants. Facebook has long been criticized for unsafe situations, failure to protect users and misogyny. As far back as 2008, Facebook allowed pro-eating disorder groups to be promoted on the site. It wasn’t until 2019 that they banned such groups, largely due to pressure from the general community and psychological community.

Just two months ago, an investigation into Facebook began, aimed at examining algorithms that endorsed misogynistic content and marketed it to certain members. The BBC Panorama investigation revealed that Facebook members who displayed aggression towards women online were more likely to have other pages recommended that involved “sexual violence, disturbing memes about sex acts and content condoning gendered violence”.

Now, a beta tester for the new Meta VR platform has revealed that she was groped by another beta tester while immersed in the virtual reality environment. She reported it to the company. The woman said that while in the simulation, her avatar was groped by a user she didn’t know and that other participants encouraged the encounter.

According to the victim of the incident in question:

“Sexual harassment is no joke on the regular internet, but being in VR adds another layer that makes the event more intense. Not only was I groped last night, but there were other people there who supported this behavior, which made me feel isolated."

The company investigated the incident and concluded she hadn’t enabled a safety feature that prevents harassment. It works by allowing a player who feels threatened by another user to cut off contact between her avatar and theirs.

The company said the incident was “absolutely unfortunate,” but at the same time “good feedback,” as it allowed them to continue to improve their security functions in the system. Vivek Sharma, V.P. of Horizon, personally admitted in a statement that they needed to work on, “making the feature trivially easy and findable,” suggesting that this isn’t the case even after the platform has been launched.

Many are concerned that Meta hasn’t taken enough care in implementing security measures for users since safety is a huge responsibility a VR platform because it is an atmosphere where you frequently interact with others who are strangers to you.

These concerns were only heighted when an internal memo written by Horizon Worlds CEO, Andrew Bosworth, was leaked where he stated that VR environments were toxic atmosphere’s, especially for women and minorities. He added that it was "practically impossible" to oversee and control the behavior of those using the metaverse.

According to Jesse Fox, an associate professor at Ohio State University:

“I think people should keep in mind that sexual harassment has never had to be a physical thing. It can be verbal, and yes, it can be a virtual experience as well."

Experience what the metaverse is like:

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