Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 29 October 2021

 Metaverse stokes meta-anger

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg interacts with an avatar of himself during the virtual Facebook Connect event, where the company announced its rebranding as Meta. Picture: Bloomberg via Getty Images

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg interacts with an avatar of himself during the virtual Facebook Connect event, where the company announced its rebranding as Meta. Picture: Bloomberg via Getty Images

Facebook is being urged to concentrate on its real world problems rather than divert its energies into the virtual world through its rebranding as Meta.

Not everyone is on board with Facebook‘s parent name change and associated plan to draw in corporations to the economy it generates in virtual reality.

The division of Facebook into two businesses has led to criticism, with some saying it should concentrate on repairing the mess it has created in the real world. There is concern that the metaverse could become a haven for crime and financial and consumer rip-offs, if no effective regulation is in place.

Reset Australia director of tech policy Dhakshayini Sooriyakumaran says Facebook’s inability to provide a safe environment for users in the real world won’t be any different in its virtual world. The problem in fact could be amplified. “This is clearly an action of a company in crisis,” says Ms Sooriyakumaran.

“It’s certainly clear that they’re diverting attention away from this publicity crisis that they’re in and they’re avoiding major reform.”

She says the scope for harms in virtual reality are exponential compared with how social media functions now. “If they can‘t even deal with the extensive harms that they are perpetuating in standard social media platforms, the idea that they can now expand to virtual reality without better oversight and regulation is ridiculous, and it’s a terrible development.”

Ms Sooriyakumaran said she fears every cyber harm imaginable such as teenage body issues, cyber-bullying, electoral interference, and enabling slavery would be replicated in the metaverse. There are also the issues of financial regulation and consumer protection if Facebook’s metaverse becomes a huge virtualised economy.

“They‘ve proven they can’t deal with that right now on social media, and now they’re looking to expand their remit broader without proving to its users that they have the checks and balances.”

Others vented concerns about the Facebook platform in general, including civil rights groups warning that Facebook can‘t wish away the harm it has caused.

“The name change from Facebook to Meta may make sense from a commercial marketing perspective, but it‘s also a blatant attempt to distance Mark Zuckerberg’s company from growing outrage over the harm it is causing to democracy in the US and around the world,“ says Paul Barrett, deputy director of the NYU Stern Centre for Business and Human Rights.

“Zuckerberg and his lieutenants can‘t shed the Facebook albatross with a clever brand adjustment. It’s past time for meaningful self-regulation combined with carefully designed government oversight.”

“Facebook thinks everyone’s going to be in the metaverse. It just doesn’t work like that,” says Rolf Illenberger, managing director of VRdirect. He says the Facebook strategy is doomed.

“Facebook says it’s going to rename itself Meta … and spend at least $US10bn this year on Facebook Reality Labs, its metaverse division tasked with creating AR and VR hardware, software, and content,” he says. ”But what is the company missing and where is it doomed to fail?

“Whereas corporate users are looking at the metaverse as a means of conducting global business, enhancing our own personal global footprints, streamlining HR training and a number of different activities that make a positive impact on the bottom line. Facebook isn’t talking about that.“

Communications director Eric Naing of the US based Muslim Advocates says a name change “won’t change the fact that Facebook, or Meta or whatever the company calls itself after its next public relations crisis is still harming the public by allowing hate and misinformation to run rampant”.

“This branding change is straight out of the Facebook playbook. Every time Mark Zuckerberg gets exposed and faces real scrutiny, he throws out some shiny distraction to try and survive the news cycle without having to be held accountable. Today is no different.

“As Muslim Advocates’ advocacy and the advocacy of so many others have shown, Facebook is hurting people all over the world by allowing hate and threats to spread unchecked on their platforms. And as the numerous leaks over the past few weeks have shown, Facebook knows this and keeps doing next to nothing to stop it.

“Instead of worrying about a virtual reality, Facebook needs to actually do something about the hate, violence and even genocide that it continues to enable in our reality.”

A poll by research firm Forrester found that 88 per cent wanted Facebook to first address its core reputation issues before changing its company name. Some 86 per cent of those polled agreed that changing the company name won’t change Facebook’s reputation.

Forrester polled 745 adults in its CommunityVoices Market Research Online Community (MROC) across the US, Canada, and the UK about their attitudes on a possible Facebook parent company name change.

Forrester VP and research director Mike Proulx says that while the name change to Meta will help alleviate confusion by distinguishing Facebook’s parent company from its founding app, a name change doesn’t suddenly erase the systemic issues plaguing the company.

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