Media swallows baseless claims of rape in the metaverse

Can a floating disembodied torso rape you in VR?

Many media outlets echoed an anti-corporate organization’s baseless claims of rape in the metaverse. Here is the other side of the story from my own experience with Horizon Worlds.

SumOfUs describes itself as a “global consumer group that exists to curb the growing power of big corporations.” They alleged that one of their researchers was raped in the metaverse. The only problem is that the allegation is entirely baseless. Meanwhile, media outlets starving for shocking headlines have repeated the claims with no attempt to examine the actual facts. Unfortunately, many people will simply read the headlines and jump straight to conclusions.

The Facts

The other person disappeared when I tried to push them
The other person disappeared when I tried to push them

According to SumOfUs, one of their researchers used an app called Horizon Worlds, which is a Meta app in VR for meeting people. “[A] SumOfUs researcher was led into a private room at a party where she was raped by a user who kept telling her to turn around so he could do it from behind.” In the video, we can’t see what is going on completely, but the fully clothed offender appears to make grinding motions against the researcher. Another user appears to offer the researcher a virtual bottle of alcohol and the researcher takes the bottle and pretends to drink (see 0:15 of the video). She then leaves the room easily without anyone attempting to block her exit. You can view a screen recording of the alleged incident here.

There is no question that the other person’s was offensive, if it was nonconsensual. If someone tried that against my wife or daughter in VR, I would cuss the hell out of them. But to call it rape is pure sensationalism and renders the term meaningless. First, if this is rape and SomeOfUs intentionally put its researcher in a situation to get her raped for research purposes, then does that mean she can sue them? And if you are allowed to use deadly force to defend yourself against rape, was the researcher legally justified to shoot the other person in real life? Calling this rape is beyond ridiculous.

Is Sexual Harassment Inevitable in the Metaverse?

As an experiment, two other people and I tried to push each other but we could not.
As an experiment, two other people and I tried to push each other but we could not.

If you are not familiar with VR, you might see SumOfUs’ headline and come to believe that someone can force themselves on you in VR. That is completely false. First of all, let’s start with the avatars. Horizon Worlds avatars currently only show the upper torso. The entire lower torso is invisible. Query how it is possible to rape someone even virtually if neither of you have a lower torso. The absurdity of their claims starts to become plain.

Second, your avatar simply cannot be dragged, carried, pushed or moved by another person in a social app like Horizon Worlds. I know because I tried. I went on Horizon Worlds and asked other people to please push me. Nothing they did could move me an inch. The only way for me to be “led” into a room is if I go there myself.

Can another person go very close to you and invade your personal space in VR? Yes and that experience can be annoying or even stressful. That is why Horizon Worlds has many features for protecting yourself from being harassed. Here are some of them:

  • Personal bubble: which is essentially like a force field, and it is turned on by default against anyone who isn’t on your friends list. No one can enter that bubble and get close to you unless they are on your friends list or you voluntarily deactivate it. If you wish, you can activate the personal bubble against everyone whether or not they are your friends.
  • Mute: Horizon Worlds allows you to mute anyone.
  • Blocking people: which makes them disappear and completely unable to interact with you.
  • Poll to block: if someone is a general nuisance to other people, you can vote anonymously to remove a person from the world. Presumably, with enough votes, a person can be recognized as a nuisance and be removed
  • Personal safe zone: at any time, you can click on an icon to transport yourself into a plain blue area and everyone else is either gone or frozen. You can resume normal activity anytime.
  • Monitors: Meta automatically saves the last few seconds of interaction. When a user is reported, a moderator can view the last few seconds of that person’s interaction to see what happened. So no one can lie about being harassed.

If only it were that easy to defend against rape in real life. These features are not secret. In fact, every time you enter the plaza, there’s a popup that explains these features to you. It’s impossible to ignore. Other VR apps have some similar features as well.

The SumOfUs video doesn’t show what transpired before the grinding incident, but during the incident, the user turned off her personal bubble and made absolutely no effort to stop the offender’s conduct, staying completely silent while the other character continued grinding against her. The researcher stated that she felt uncomfortable but continued to do nothing because “this is important research.” Perhaps she thought that playing along and pretending to drink was her way of telling her tormentors to stop.

In addition to its allegations of “virtual groping and gang-rape,” the SumOfUs report claims that users in the metaverse can be subjected to “sexual, homophobic and racist comments,” and that it is easy for children to “use the platform and encounter harms.” In that regard, nowhere does SumOfUs explain how the metaverse is any different from the internet in general.

Motives and Bias

Beyond the sensationalism in SumOfUs’ report, its bias is also utterly shameless. Incidents like the one described in the report can occur in almost any social VR app in all VR platforms including SteamVR and Playstation VR. However, the report is careful to call out only Meta and no other company or VR platform. In fact, it calls the other platforms “non-Meta” rather than mentioning them by name. Six of the 9 pages in the report have nothing to do with the supposed claims and are merely their group’s criticisms of Meta as a company and its data collection practices.

I’m not a fan of everything that Meta does, but these facts show that this tabloid journalism masquerading as “research” is nothing but a hit piece by an organization with a declared agenda against Meta and other “big corporations.” Ironically, their website includes an entire section devoted to disinformation. They stated that Facebook, YouTube, and Google “are exacerbating fake news and conspiracy theories, allowing their rapid spread in the name of profits over people.” They missed mentioning themselves in that line.

You can download the SumOfUs report here.

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