Article by James Beal for the Times - published 25 April 2022
An undercover documentary has revealed rampant sexual and racist abuse in the virtual reality world of the Metaverse.
The investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches uncovered disturbing behaviour by a host of individuals taking part in the Metaverse, a 3D online community spearheaded by Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook.
One user hurled racial slurs, while another was heard to say: “I just like little girls from the age of nine to 12, that’s just my thing.”
Andy Burrows, the head of child safety online policy at NSPCC, told the programme: “Children are going into those spaces expecting that they will be safe. And what you’re seeing is spaces that are being designed to appeal to children, to draw children in, but then no even cursory attempt at safeguarding, or at moderating. You have an online Wild West.”
The Metaverse includes 3D online worlds that users can explore with their avatars, using virtual reality headsets. The most popular headset used to access the Metaverse is the Oculus Quest 2, which is owned by Meta, the parent company of Facebook.
More than eight million Oculus Quest 2 headsets have been sold worldwide, with customers requiring a Facebook account to use them, for which they need to be 13 years old.
Yinka Bokinni, a journalist, went undercover in the Metaverse for Dispatches, posing as both a 22-year-old woman and a 13-year-old girl. The investigation will be broadcast tonight.
She tried out two of the most popular apps in the Oculus Quest Store — VRChat and Rec Room.
Within minutes, she found herself surrounded by other users, making sexually explicit comments and exhibiting threatening behaviour.
Bokinni also witnessed sexually threatening behaviour between what appeared to be teenagers, as well as simulated sex acts between users who appeared to be minors. Other users appeared to discuss sex acts with minors.
Users also appeared to discuss sex acts with minors in the same room.
In another scene, another user was seen using extreme racial slurs, saying: “You’re black. Imagine being black — get back to the fields, cotton-picker. I hate n****er.”
The Center for Countering Digital Hate has found that users on VRChat are exposed to abusive behaviour every seven minutes.
After viewing Dispatches’ footage, the Conservative MP Damian Collins, who is chairman of a committee scrutinising the government’s Online Safety Bill, said: “It really worries me, we’re creating experiences that feel real.
“I think we should genuinely be frightened of it. The problems that we know exist in the real world, and we’ve created laws to try to protect people from them, they could exist in a way that is totally uncontrolled in the Metaverse unless we make sure that we can police it.”
In response to the programme, Meta said: “We don’t own these apps, and they can be used on phones, laptops and other VR devices, not just Quest.
“We cannot take action against customers on devices we don’t make. We prohibit anyone under 13 from creating Quest accounts and design some experiences only for people 18 and over.”
Rec Room said that users could limit the voices they hear on the app to only “friends, favourite friends, their current party or none”.
It said that it used “a combination of automated systems with human oversight and review that both proactively and reactively moderate code of conduct violations”.
VRChat said: “Underage users are not permitted to register an account. If they lie about their age and are detected on our platform, they are immediately banned.
“User safety is a top priority for VRChat, and we’ve provided users with a number of tools to help them protect themselves.”