• Brussels, Berlin, Europe

Foundation Metaverse Europe Position Paper on Metaverse and Democracy Shaping by Prof. Dr. Matthias Quent (Original in German, automatically translated version)

When Marc chose the term Metaverse to proclaim the next stage of an even more immersive Internet, he was also – willingly and consciously or not – putting a warning into the world about the end of democracy: The word “metaverse” was first popularized in the 1991 science fiction novel Snow Crash by Neal Stephanson. The novel is set in a libertarian dystopian future where the state, democracy and the environment are destroyed, big corporations and the mafia rule, and racial and social segregation prevails. The virtual parallel world of the Metaverse is a haven where avatars can find freedom, leave discrimination behind, and create that social advancement prevented by the extreme inequalities of the real world. Nevertheless, the metaverse from the novel is not safe: extreme inequalities are reproduced there as well, digital violence is prevalent there as well, and an immersive drug called “Snow Crash” is spreading, infecting the real flesh-and-blood people behind the screens – a metaphor for disinformation, conspiracy narratives, or other destructive forms of manipulation that can transfer from virtual environments to the physical world. The novel “Snow Crash” tells only one story of a potential future, but its cultural-historical origins mean that the term “metaverse” is associated with a warning not to lose sight of the real world despite all the euphoria and tempting possibilities of immersive digital environments: Protecting the climate, democracy and human rights are paramount. The great leaps in digitization caused by the Covid pandemic have shown the extent to which global crises can accelerate digital progress. How unrealistic is the notion of virtual escapism as a response to the escalating climate crisis, war and domestic conflict really? In addition to all the opportunities, the development of the Internet of the future must take into account potential dangers at various levels.

On a personal level, there are many benefits for users – including the freedom of new identities and in discrimination-free spaces, entertainment and education. At the same time, there are a number of risks from harassment, hate, and manipulation. In 2022, a survey by KPMG and Sinus concluded that 69 percent of 14- to 39-year-olds in Germany are looking forward to a new identity in the metaverse. At the same time, 69 percent fear becoming a victim of discrimination, cyberbullying, or hate speech there.[1] This highlights major challenges not only for public recognition of the Metaverse, but also for mental health and social cohesion. Research on these issues has been underdeveloped, but it is sufficiently clear from the research literature that the intended immersive impact of XR technologies is measurable in a wide variety of application fields. It must therefore be assumed that digital violence, hate speech and disinformation also affect users even more intensively in immersive virtual environments than in the social media of Web 2.0.

Metaverse technologies can offer opportunities for extensions of democratic socialization and experience spaces, especially with regard to inclusion and fostering empathy through shifts in perspective, increased global collaboration, and new, immersive educational experiences. It is important to note that the digital divide threatens to exacerbate existing tensions and privilege those who, by virtue of their economic and cultural capital, have the means, time, skills, and motivation not only to consume new immersive technologies but to use them meaningfully beyond entertainment purposes.

Already today, many millions of users, especially young ones, experience identity formation, intense social connections and self-efficacy in virtual sandbox worlds: On platforms like Roblox, users can not only determine their own appearance as avatars, but literally shape the digital world as they please. Transformative participation for the digital realities of life offer opportunities for trial and error, co-creation, and equal interaction with global users from diverse backgrounds. Through the targeted integration of inclusion- and democracy-promoting elements in metaverse platforms, target groups can be addressed that are considered difficult to reach in traditional political education and social work. The decisive factors here are access, i.e., among other things, the question of which devices can be used to access platforms, whether and what costs are incurred, and how the protection of private data is guaranteed.

With increasing immersivity, it is also becoming more important to protect against bullying and (sexualized) harassment, against hate and anti-democratic content. Because platforms can also be used to devalue social groups, glorify dictatorships and even genocides: There is no shortage of examples. All this is not new, but has accompanied the Internet and social media since their origins. The Internet did not invent hate and right-wing extremism, but it networked, accelerated and spread them. The more immersive virtual experience spaces become, the more intense emotional and cognitive reactions by users can turn out to be. Not only positive feelings, but also tension, fear and anger can have a stronger effect in immersive environments and unfold consequences in the real world.

Even before politically necessary regulatory measures take effect, it is the task of developers and investors to ensure that future technologies take social and ecological aspects into account in an ethically responsible and sustainable manner. In the social metaverse, this concerns, among other things, the issue of diversity of avatar characteristics and their protection. In the current development phase, users, communities and content creators on some platforms have an influence on further developments. Influence can be exerted, among other things, through modifications and collective creations, but also through open protest or organized voting. On the Metaverse platform “Decentraland,” for example, users can vote on decisions on the platform – but not under democratic conditions. This is because votes are weighted according to the digital wealth of users – the more MANA or land a user owns on the platform, the more weighty the vote. This is intended to prevent misuse, where users could create a large number of profiles and thus falsify results. But this voting model fundamentally contradicts the basic democratic principle of “One Person – One Vote”. To ensure truly democratic voting in the metaverse of the future, standards must be found to prevent fraud and to weight all votes equally regardless of wealth – for example, through unique personalized identifiers.

To protect users from personalized (political) manipulation, measures must also be taken to prevent manipulation and deepfakes in the metaverse. By means of AI-based avatars and personalized speeches, political actors could create impressions of immersive encounters in the metaverse, in which, for example, election advertisements or politician:inside avatars in the election campaign appear as particularly approachable or interested in the users. It must also be considered that a lot of information is available about the comprehensive data collection of AI. Confirmation bias could reinforce actions based on skillful manipulation. AI-based avatars in the metaverse must therefore be recognizable as such. The best approach would be to completely ban organized partisan political campaigns that influence elections in the metaverse – at least until safe and evidence-based standards are developed for them that prevent manipulative measures.

Using artificial intelligence, deepfakes in the metaverse can fake not only individuals, but entire rooms and situations. Deepfake technologies are already being used for economically and politically motivated manipulation. It will soon be possible to virtually simulate not only voices and individual video sequences, but also complex events in such a way that they look like real events: for example, acts of violence or terrorist attacks. AI in the hands of authoritarian actors is the ultimate manipulation tool. The boundaries between reality and fake threaten to erode further if virtual realities are used by actors with malicious intent – and this will undoubtedly happen. To prevent tampering with AI-based avatars and digital events, procedures must be established to confirm the authenticity of the avatars and events. This can be done, for example, by introducing policies that govern the creation of AI-based avatars and digital events. It must be ensured that the creators of such content can be identified and held responsible. In addition, technical solutions must be developed to detect deepfakes in the metaverse. For example, techniques can be used that verify AI-based avatars and digital events before they are made publicly available. In this way, manipulation and deception can be effectively prevented. It is important that measures are taken to prevent tampering of AI-based avatars and digital events in the metaverse, creating a safe and trusted environment for all user:s. Now is the time for that!

Because the metaverse does not yet exist. The development of the metaverse can still be influenced. We must not close our eyes to potential threats. Beyond economic interests and technical possibilities, sociological and civil society voices must also be considered in the design of the metaverse. Together, we must ensure that the Internet of the future does not end in a dystopia.

[1] Metaverse: (Un)known World? Which customer groups are making the trip. Cologne and Heidelberg, p 16.

On the core topic of shaping democracy with Prof. Dr. Matthias Quent

Dr. Matthias Quent is Professor of Sociology and Chairman of the Institute for Democratic Culture at Magdeburg-Stendal University of Applied Sciences. He researches and teaches, among other things, on democracy, civil society, social justice, and right-wing extremism in the context of social change – especially in the context of ecological and digital transformation. In particular, Matthias Quent examines implications, design options, and risks of the metaverse as the future of the Internet. Matthias Quent leads the immersive democracy project and is one of the founders of the European Metaverse Research Network.

Prof. Quent is active as an expert and reviewer for various institutions. He is also a best-selling author, speaker, expert in demand in the media and consultant. In 2023, he was appointed as a member of the Expert Commission for the preparation of the Fourth Engagement Report of the Federal Government. Quent was also the founding director of the Institute for Democracy and Civil Society in Jena and the nationwide Research Institute for Social Cohesion.

Photo: Sio Motion

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