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Sexual Harrassment Already Happening In Horizon World, Meta (Facebook) Recently Launched Metaverse

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A beta tester user has claimed she was virtually “groped” in the metaverse VR platform Horizon Worlds from Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook.

Meta revealed the incident on Dec. 1, saying it occurred on Nov. 26. The woman had reported the assault on the Horizon Worlds beta testing Facebook group.

Meta (the holding company known as Facebook until October, when Mark Zuckerberg dramatically rebranded it in an attempt to distract people from the company’s PR problems), opened up a virtual reality (VR) platform called Horizon Worlds to anyone over 18 in the US and Canada. Horizon Worlds is Meta’s first big step towards building a new version of the internet called the metaverse, where the physical and digital worlds come together. Your avatar floats around with up to 20 people and you can play games, hang out, and build custom digital environments. Unfortunately, you can also grope people

“Sexual harassment is no joke on the regular internet, but being in VR adds another layer that makes the event more intense,” she wrote, according to the Verge. “Not only was I groped last night, but there were other people there who supported this behavior, which made me feel isolated in the Plaza,” the virtual environment’s central gathering space.

“Severe” encounters of online harassment — including physical threats, stalking and “repeated” harassment — are on the rise, according to a 2020 Pew Research poll, with the percentage of users reporting such incidents jumping from 15% in 2014 to 25% today. While much of it takes place on social media, VR is still nascent and already an apparent venue for harassment.

The Guardian noted that Horizon Worlds, operated by VR company Oculus — which is also owned by Meta — is billed as a pleasant, productive digital escape, a place to “create in extraordinary ways” and “find experiences that matter” with your avatar friends. The platform currently supports up to 20 people during one virtual session.

In its statement about the incident, Meta pointed to its “Safe Zone” feature, which allows users to place a block against interaction with other users. However, the company admitted that it needs to work on making the feature “trivially easy and findable,” said Vivek Sharma, the vice president of Horizon, in a statement to the Verge.

“At the end of the day, the nature of virtual-reality spaces is such that it is designed to trick the user into thinking they are physically in a certain space, that their every bodily action is occurring in a 3-D environment,” Katherine Cross, a Ph.D. student researcher of online harassment at the University of Washington, told Technology Review.

“It’s part of the reason why emotional reactions can be stronger in that space, and why VR triggers the same internal nervous-system and psychological responses,” she added.

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