The metaverse arrives. Like any technological innovation, it brings new opportunities and new risks.
The metaverse is an immersive virtual reality version of the Internet where people can interact with digital objects and digital representations of themselves and others, and can move more or less freely from one virtual environment to another. . It can also involve augmented reality, a mixture of virtual and physical realities, both by representing people and objects of the physical world in the virtual and vice versa by bringing the virtual into the perception of physical spaces by people.
By wearing virtual reality headsets or augmented reality glasses, people will be able to socialize, worship and work in environments where the boundaries between environments and between the digital and the physical are permeable. In the Metaverse, people will be able to find meaning and experience in concert with their offline lives.
Here is the catch. When people learn to love something, whether it’s digital, physical, or a combination, taking it away from them can cause emotional pain and suffering. To put an end to this, the things that are dear to people become vulnerabilities that can be exploited by those who seek to cause harm. People with malicious intent are already noting that the Metaverse is a potential tool in their arsenal.
As terrorism researchers at the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education Center in Omaha, Nebraska, we see a potential dark side to the Metaverse. While still under construction, its evolution promises new ways for extremists to exert influence through fear, threat, and coercion. Given our research into malicious creativity and innovation, it is possible that the Metaverse will become a new area of terrorist activity.
To be clear, we are not opposed to the Metaverse as a concept and, indeed, we are excited about its potential for human advancement. But we believe the rise of the metaverse will open up new vulnerabilities and present new opportunities to exploit them. While not exhaustive, here are three ways the metaverse will complicate efforts to counter terrorism and violent extremism.
First, online recruiting and engagement are hallmarks of modern extremism, and the metaverse threatens to expand that capacity by making it easier to meet people. Today, someone interested in hearing what Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes has to say could read an article about his anti-government ideology or watch a video of him speaking to his supporters about impending martial law. Tomorrow, by mixing artificial intelligence and augmented reality in the metaverse, Rhodes or his AI replacement will be able to sit on a virtual park bench with a number of potential followers and entice them with visions of the future.
Likewise, a resurrected bin Laden might meet potential followers in a rose garden or virtual conference room. The emerging metaverse offers extremist leaders a new ability to forge and sustain virtual ideological and social communities and powerful and hard-to-disrupt means to expand their ranks and spheres of influence.
Second, the metaverse offers new ways to coordinate, plan, and execute acts of destruction through diffuse membership. An assault on the Capitol? With sufficient recognition and information gathering, extremist leaders could create virtual environments with representations of any physical building, which would allow them to guide members through routes to key objectives.
Members could learn viable and efficient paths, coordinate alternative routes if some are stranded, and make multiple contingency plans in the event of surprises. When executing an attack in the physical world, augmented reality objects like virtual arrows can help guide violent extremists and identify marked targets.
Violent extremists can plot from their living room, basement or backyard, while also establishing social connections and trusting their peers, and while appearing to others as any digital avatar of their choice. When extremist leaders give orders for action in the physical world, these groups are likely to be better prepared than today’s extremist groups because of their time spent in the metaverse.
Finally, with the new virtual and mixed reality spaces comes the potential for new targets. Just as buildings, events, and people can be harmed in the real world, they can also be attacked in the virtual world. Imagine swastikas on synagogues, disruption of real life activities like banking, shopping, and work, and the mess of public events.
A 9/11 memorial service created and hosted in the Virtual Realm would, for example, be a tempting target for violent extremists who could reenact the Falling Twin Towers. A metaverse marriage could be disrupted by attackers who disapprove of the couple’s religious or gender twinning. These acts would have a psychological impact and cause damage in the real world.
It can be easy to dismiss the threats of this mixed virtual and physical world by pretending that it is not real and therefore inconsequential. But as Nike prepares to sell virtual shoes, it’s critical to recognize the real money that will be spent in the metaverse. With real money comes real jobs, and with real jobs comes the potential to lose very real livelihoods.
Destroying an augmented or virtual reality business means that an individual suffers real financial loss. Like physical places, virtual spaces can be carefully designed and manufactured, subsequently carrying the importance people place on things in which they have invested time and creativity. Additionally, as technology gets smaller and more integrated into people’s day-to-day lives, the ability to simply turn off the metaverse and ignore the damage might become more difficult.
Prepare for the new (virtual) reality
How then to deal with these emerging threats and vulnerabilities? It is reasonable for companies to suggest that hatred or violence will not be allowed or that individuals engaging in extremism will be identified and banned from their virtual spaces. We support such commitments but are skeptical of their credibility, especially in light of the revelations about Meta’s FB,
dangerous behavior on its Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp platforms. There is profit to be gained from hatred and division.
If companies cannot serve as unique and reliable gatekeepers of the metaverse, then who can and how?
Although the arrival of a full-fledged Metaverse is still a few years away, the potential threats posed by the Metaverse today require the attention of a wide range of people and organizations, including academic researchers, those who develop the metaverse and those responsible for protecting society.
Threats call for thinking as much or more creatively of the Metaverse than those with malicious intentions are likely to. Everyone must be ready for this new reality.
Joel S. Elson is Assistant Professor of Computational Innovation at the University of Nebraska Omaha. Austin C. Doctor is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska Omaha. Sam Hunter is professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska Omaha. It was first published by The Conversation – “The metaverse offers a future full of potential – for terrorists and extremists, too.”