Meta may be an updated name and vision for Facebook, but the corporation’s extensive harms to children and adults alike remain the same. Meta owns Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp: all of which are consistently under fire as primary places for grooming, sextortion, child sexual abuse materials, sex trafficking, and a host of other crimes and ills.
Given its prominence and resources, Meta has the potential to lead the tech industry in creating and implementing online safety standards. Instead, Meta is prioritizing new projects and products, all while pursuing increased, sweeping encryption without sufficient provisions for child online safety which will aid predators in escaping detection and accountability. And without a commitment to put safety before profit across all its platforms, the so-called “metaverse”—where social media and virtual reality meet—will likely unleash new manifestations of sexual abuse and exploitation.
Meta must prioritize safety from sexual abuse and exploitation! Take action below.
What is a “metaverse” and how does Meta play into it?
In 2021, Mark Zuckerburg announced a corporate rebrand of Facebook, Inc. to the new Meta Platforms, Inc. This rebrand elevated public attention (and confusion) to the concept of “the metaverse.”
The “metaverse” is a broad, generic term that can encompass virtual reality (a simulated digital experience, such as using VR headsets to play a game – such as Meta-owned Oculus) augmented reality (adding digital elements to a live view, often on a phone or augmented reality glasses. Examples include Snapchat lenses or Facebook Ray-Ban Stories glasses), or a digital economy (buying and selling goods online or with digital currency). It’s a more extensive integration of offline and virtual identities and a tighter merging of the tangible and digital world.
In simple terms, a metaverse can be described as a network of virtual worlds that are focused on social connection. Virtual reality + social media, gaming, commerce, and more. And despite how people have been speaking about it, it doesn’t yet actually exist.
Facebook’s rebrand grew from a desire to expand the “metaverse.” The company website states:
Meta builds technologies that help people connect, find communities, and grow businesses. When Facebook launched in 2004, it changed the way people connect. Apps like Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp further empowered billions around the world. Now, Meta is moving beyond 2D screens toward immersive experiences like augmented and virtual reality to help build the next evolution in social technology.
Meta is one company of many that is working to build products and innovate towards this shift in how people interact with technology.
Below are select products and features Meta has shared as examples of their vision for the metaverse, including products for gaming, fitness, work and more. You can see a full list here.
Avatars are graphical representations or digital embodiments of a user or a user-created persona or character. They can be 2-D or 3-D and are especially popular in the gaming world.
VR and Quest are key parts of our metaverse vision, but we see the metaverse as an interconnected digital world, one that bridges VR and AR, in addition to more familiar platforms like your phone and computer. Rolling out avatars across our platforms is an early step towards making this a reality. We hope your new virtual self enables you to be represented online the way you want — whether that’s to friends and family, your local community or beyond.
Note: Avatars are not new – and sadly, neither are the harms associated with them. Several studies have been conducted about negative effects on children and adolescents using sexualized avatars (2-D and 3-D), including self-objectification and acceptance of rape myths, lower self-esteem, online solicitation for sex and sexual advances, and even rape in the virtual world (more information below and in Proof section).
Oculus Quest 2 headset
The Oculus Quest 2 is a VR headset developed by Meta-owned Oculus. Released in 2019, it has quickly grown in popularity. The Oculus VR app (used to manage the headset) was the most downloaded app in Apple’s App Store Christmas week 2021 – indicating that the Oculus Quest 2 was one of the most popular tech gifts over the holidays. The Oculus does not come with any caregiver controls and has its own web browser. Read this great review of risks (including possible mental and physical effects) in using Oculus from Protect Young Eyes.
Horizon Home and Horizon Worlds:
We introduced Horizon Home, our early vision for a home base in the metaverse. This is the first thing you see when you put on your Oculus Quest headset. Until now, it’s just been called Home because the experience wasn’t social. Soon, you’ll be able to invite your friends to join you in Horizon Home, where you can hang out, watch videos, and jump into games and apps together.
Horizon Home is the latest addition to Horizon, our social platform to help people create and interact with each other in the metaverse. It joins Horizon Worlds, [see note below] currently available in beta, and Horizon Workrooms, our flagship productivity solution. And now Venues is joining the party as Horizon Venues. Your all-access pass to concerts, sports, and more, Horizon Venues lets you enjoy the energy of live events from the comfort of home. NBA games are returning in early November, so stay tuned for more details.
NOTE: Horizon Worlds is a virtual-reality social media platform, where up to 20 avatars can get together at a time to explore, hang out, and build within the virtual space. There have been multiple instances ` sexual harassment and groping in Horizon Worlds, see the Proof section for details.
Messenger calls in VR:
Earlier this year we launched Messenger support in VR, letting you send a quick message to friends from inside the headset. But why type when you can talk? Later this year, we’re bringing Messenger audio calls to VR. You’ll be able to jump into an audio call with friends from any Messenger-enabled platform and eventually hang out or travel to VR destinations together.
Project Cambria (virtual reality headset)
We gave people a sneak peek at our next-generation all-in-one VR hardware, Project Cambria, launching next year. This won’t be a Quest 2 replacement, or a Quest 3. Project Cambria will be a high-end device at a higher price point, packed with all the latest advanced technologies, including improved social presence, color Passthrough, pancake optics, and a lot more. The experiences developers create with Presence Platform will really shine when the hardware leaps forward, and we’re designing Project Cambria for people who want to start testing out a new kind of computing on the cutting edge of what’s possible today. We’re excited to share more, so stay tuned.
In addition to the vision of improved virtual reality headsets, Meta is also looking forward towards augmented reality glasses that can be worn all day. A previous example of this is the Ray-Ban Stories project in partnership with EssilorLuxottica.
We announced Presence Platform, a suite of machine perception and AI capabilities — including Passthrough, Spatial Anchors, and Scene Understanding — that will let developers build more realistic mixed reality, interaction, and voice experiences that seamlessly blend virtual content with a user’s physical world.
The technological trend towards augmented and virtual reality etc. is, like all tools, neutral in nature. It is their use that renders them helpful or harmful, enjoyable or exploitative. There have already been incredibly beneficial uses for virtual reality, including advancements in medical treatments, educational opportunities, remote workplace collaboration, and entertainment – and undoubtedly there will be more as this evolution progresses.
However, many unique dangers already exist in virtual reality that will likely expand as the technology becomes more popular and easily accessible.
In fact, instances of sexual abuse and harassment through Meta’s virtual reality have already made headlines when a psychotherapist who researches the metaverse was gang raped within a minute of stepping into Horizon Worlds. And so many people were being groped online that Facebook belatedly added a Personal Boundary feature for avatars that will be on by default.
And while Facebook’s portal into it’s concept that is closest to Meta’s vision of the metaverse, Horizon Worlds, is supposedly 18+ there is growing evidence that many children are “playing” in an adult space with no protections for minors.
Meta is on the Dirty Dozen List as it has a track record of failing to prioritize the online safety and well-being of its users and has not made significant enough improvements given the gravity and extent of the harms on its platforms. In the later part of 2021, Whistleblower revelations and US Senate Congressional hearings with Facebook and Instagram executives unveiled that despite knowing the significant harms its products cause – especially to young girls – the company consistently choses profits over people. As noted above, sufficient evidence already exists that this negligent track record is set to continue as the company rushes to build new “metaverse” products without comprehensive safety measures in mind.
In fact, a Meta spokesperson speaking with the Washington Post “emphasized that social VR is an emerging and rapidly evolving medium and that the company is figuring things out as it goes” and declined to share if any measures were put in place to protect children from threats.
Unless Meta truly prioritizes sweeping and significant safety improvements at the pace it develops new profit-producing products and features, the existing harms will continue to metastasize and new manifestations of sexual exploitation and violence will be unleashed.
Meta owns Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp: all platforms that are consistently noted by researchers, survivors, and law enforcement among the top platforms for a host of crimes including grooming, child sexual abuse materials, sex trafficking, etc.
For example, the 2020 Federal Human Trafficking Report (Human Trafficking Institute, May 2021) cited that in 2020, 59% of online victim recruitment in active sex trafficking cases occurred on Facebook (more than any other platform). In active cases involving children, that percentage rose to 65%. And the top two most frequently cited platforms for recruiting child victims were Facebook and Instagram.
The latest data from UK’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children noted Instagram as the most commonly used site for grooming, as flagged by police in 32% of instances in 2020 where the platform was known
Child safety organization Thorn surveyed 2000 children ages 9 – 17 about popular platform usage, 1 in 5 (22%) of Instagram users surveyed reported having had a sexual interaction on the platform (Snapchat had the highest at 26%, while WhatsApp came in at third with 21%).
Even more disturbing, when asked about online sexual interactions on the most popular platforms with someone they believed to be an adult (includes being asked to send a nude photo or video), Meta-owned platforms all showed higher-than-average responses. Thorn notes that among the more popular platforms, Instagram (together with Snapchat) appears to host the highest concentration of sexually explicit interactions between minors and adults. While roughly 1 in 10 respondents have had such interactions on WhatsApp (11%), Facebook (10%) and Messenger (10%).
Even though Facebook and Instagram have made notable improvements in the past few years to increase safety, the measures are not nearly enough given the gravity of the harms their products perpetuate and the overwhelming evidence that – despite those changes – Meta platforms continue to be among the most dangerous places for children and vulnerable adults.
We request the following improvements: