By: OSCAR FOCK / STAFF WRITER
With the recent increased news coverage surrounding Meta, formerly known as Facebook, the social media platform has been under intense scrutiny surrounding its role in the safety and wellbeing of its users and society.
To begin, Facebook is no longer Facebook. Or at least not on paper.
This change was made in late October by Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, when he announced that the company he started over 15 years ago would be changing its corporate name to Meta.
In a mildly obscure keynote video from the company’s Connect conference, with flying fish, dog videos in space and augmented reality art, Zuckerberg laid out the company’s plans to develop what they view as the next version of the internet, the "Metaverse."
”Embodied internet,” the Facebook CEO called it in his speech, the Metaverse is a 3D rendition of the internet, where, if Zuckerberg’s utopia becomes reality, everything from virtual meetings and online shoe shopping to around-the-world cruises and Ed Sheeran concerts, will take place in a universe of connected virtual worlds.
”The goal of a metaverse is to make it indistinguishable from the physical real world in which we live, play, build communities, conduct business, and pursue careers,” said Mohammed Ghriga, associate professor of computer science at Long Island University.
But the name change comes amidst a turbulent few months for Facebook.
On October 25, 2021, former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen released thousands of internal documents to various news organizations in both the U.S. and Europe, painting a picture of a company more interested in money than the safety of the community.
The documents, later labeled ”The Facebook Papers”, revealed how internal research on Facebook’s platforms’ effects on the mental health of teenagers had been hidden from investors, how policy-violating content from prominent users often was exempted from regular content moderation and how the company struggles to deal with harmful content in many countries outside the U.S. and Europe.
But the troubles didn’t start there. On October 5, the whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before a Senate subcommittee for over three hours. And the documents that were released on October 25 had already been obtained in September, by The Wall Street Journal, who produced a 16-piece series detailing various aspects of the leaked files.
Facebook has been under the microscope all year.
First for its role in the January 6 insurrection on the Capitol, then for the banning of Donald Trump on the platform. The company also botched a COVID-19 vaccination campaign that was intended to push millions to get vaccinated, but instead became a breeding ground for vaccine misinformation. Executives have, on multiple occasions this year, been questioned by Congress for Facebook’s responsibility in the spread of misinformation.
The announcement of Meta came just three days after the leak, prompting some to call it an attempt to divert attention away from the unfolding scandal.
However, the move to the Metaverse is in itself not a surprise, as Zuckerberg has spoken on his desire to expand his company into the Metaverse before and the plan to spend $10 billion this year alone on its Reality Lab.
Although the name change was likely not mainly intended to be a distraction, the recent revelations still evoke questions concerning the metaverse. In an experience far more immersive than today’s social media feeds, what will be the effects on users’ mental health? With more ways to share content, will misinformation spread even faster and content moderation be even harder?
The effects of social media on people’s mental health have for long been a debated topic, with studies producing a variety of results. The uncertainty of the issue has been used by Facebook to argue in favor of social media use.
However, thanks to the leaked documents, we now have a pretty good idea of at least how Instagram – which is owned by Facebook – affects teenagers. One study conducted by Facebook researchers concluded that Instagram makes body image issues worse for almost one in three teenage girls. Facebook’s experts also say that teens blame Instagram for both anxiety and depression.
What the metaverse will do to the mental health of both teenagers and adults remains to be seen. How virtual reality affects the brain has not been extensively studied, but in an article on Psychology Today, Phil Reed, professor of psychology at Swansea University, argues that the metaverse could have both positive and negative impacts.
”At best,” Reed writes, ”such an environment may serve as a temporary ‘safe haven’ for those with schizophrenic-like symptoms." On the flip side, Reed writes, the metaverse could become a catalyst for delusions and psychoses.
As for the topic of misinformation, during the 2016 and the 2020 U.S. elections, Facebook was used to spread misinformation, including conspiracies about election fraud.
The whistleblower, Francis Haugen, has accused Facebook of not adequately dealing with hateful content and misinformation and Ghriga thinks that the metaverse will make it even worse.
”Misinformation, hate speech, extremism — it will all be magnified in the metaverse,” he said.
In the Metaverse, users will be able to create content in more ways than before, meaning more ways that can be used to spread harmful content. It also makes the platform much more difficult to monitor and moderate and many, like Ghriga, are concerned.
”It’s almost like the Wild West. On Facebook, there are simple texts messages. You can tell if it’s a hateful message or not. But then, when you create these immersive experiences, people can hide messages in many different ways," Ghriga said. "How to monitor all of this is going to be the biggest question.”
However, Ghriga doesn’t think this is impossible, as AI will play a much bigger role in he future and users will be relied upon to report experiences.
Although Ghriga has concerns about the Metaverse, he still believes the Metaverse is the future of the internet.
”The vision is to create a brand new, virtual environment, with immersive experiences where you will actually sense the space you’re in," Ghriga said. "And I have seen some of the prototypes, they’re phenomenal.”