The metaverse is a way for the Meta tech company to avoid liability. This is what Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen had to say during New Insights, a Mediafin event. “I don’t see any sign that Meta has learned from what went wrong with Instagram and Facebook.”
Just three weeks after American Frances Haugen published damaging documents about Facebook, the tech company changed its name to Meta. It was CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s way of showing what his focus will be in the coming years: the metaverse. This Goal means the convergence of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and online environments in a future phase of the Internet.
Zuckerberg spoke about ‘the successor to the mobile Internet’. In that metaverse, users can be together in shared environments instead of looking at a screen. That vision would become more concrete in the next five to ten years, with billions of dollars in investment. Haugen, who became world famous as a Facebook whistleblower, is “cautiously optimistic” about the metaverse, but mostly critical.
See a summary of New Insights with Frances Haugen here.
New perspectives with Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen
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What exactly is the metaverse? How will it change our lives and our work? In addition to attending exclusive parties, can you also invest, build and invest there? Who sets the rules in this new virtual world? Which Belgian companies have already discovered the opportunities of the metaverse? De Tijd guides you through the metaverse with articles and podcasts. Follow all in our ‘Home to metaverse’ archive.
“The metaverse may spark a transformation, but I don’t see any signs that Meta has learned where things went wrong with Instagram and Facebook,” he said at Mediafin’s New Insights event. With this Haugen refers to the abuses that she revealed in October of last year. Using tens of thousands of pages of internal company information, which he had access to as a product manager at Facebook, he revealed that Meta puts profits before the well-being of its users and is aware of it.
Six months later, Haugen admits that Meta did intervene. To better detect harmful content, the company added additional languages to the AI models responsible for moderation on Facebook and Instagram. In addition, the company introduced ‘parental controls’ for the first time. “Parents can now see what their children are watching and set time limits. It’s a big step forward,’ says Haugen.
In other, according to Haugen, more important areas, no progress is yet to be seen. ‘They have to be open to data and more transparent. We deserve to see what’s in the algorithms.
Those algorithms are Haugen’s workhorse. “Every time you open Facebook or Instagram, those apps have thousands of pieces of content that they can suggest, pieces that the algorithm thinks might resonate with you. To keep users on the platform as long as possible, the algorithms tend towards extreme and negative content.”
It seems that the problem with the metaverse is more structural. “Facebook and Instagram are completely under the control of Meta, who has responsibility for them.” Haugen believes that Meta – and that is why the company is so committed to the metaverse – wants to move to a model similar to the App Store, Apple’s application store.
“If you later become a victim of hateful messages in the metaverse, get harassed during a game, or come into contact with harmful content like child pornography, Meta can more easily keep its hands off you. “Oh, how tragic, we’re sorry to hear that. But we just did the hardware.”
Haugen fears that the metaverse will push the children further into isolation. “It’s hard for teenagers to learn to communicate or be social. The metaverse could lower the threshold much more, but it could also go the other way, as is already happening with social media. Instead of meeting in a cafe, we stay in home, because we already have the feeling that we are connected through Instagram or Facebook.’
What will happen to an insecure teenager? Haugen wonders. “You can come home after a hard day, put on your headphones, and suddenly live in a great house, with nice clothes and cute friends. What happens psychologically to that child? If he brushes his teeth at night and looks in the mirror, will he be even less satisfied with what he sees? Are kids being pushed further and further into the metaverse like this?’
Digital Services Law
According to Haugen, very few studies have been done on these effects. “All I have been able to find is a study of two 30-minute sessions with a 12-year-old boy. What 12 year old will stop playing or virtual reality after 30 minutes? The lack of long-term studies is problematic.’
It’s hard for teens to learn to communicate or be social. The metaverse could lower that threshold much further, but it could also go the other way.
How can the metaverse become a safe place? Haugen is delighted with the Digital Services Act, a recent European agreement that will regulate the technology sector more strictly. “That means there should be mandatory reviews between companies and regulatory authorities on a regular basis,” says Haugen. “It can be, for example, how they want to avoid sexually infringing behavior and how they want the platform to be inclusive. The fact that we can ask those questions in a formal setting will force them to think about them more and provide answers.’