Women’s safety online is a problem that needs to be addressed (Credits: Unsplash)

Defining and upholding both boundaries and protocol in an entirely virtual world is something humans have yet to grasp.

Troll farms and anonymous accounts spread misinformation and hatred on social media. Online video games use play-to-earn to exploit the poor. Financial scams are a regular occurance when it comes to virtual currency.

Then there’s the metaverse.

Of course, a fully-formed virtual world brings with it untold benefits in terms of both work and socialising.

But when a 21-year-old female metaverse user claimed her avatar had been raped within ours of joining, the response was divisive.

Last week, SumOfUs published a report titled ‘Metaverse: another cesspool of toxic content’ which contains details of the researcher’s violent encounter in Meta’s Horizon World.

Some were appalled at the experience, while others suggested she should just turn the system off.

‘Virtual reality isn’t real life and people will use this to their own sick and twisted advantage but we also got to remember it’s not real life and if something you don’t like happens online it’s simple: Remove your headset and don’t enter games that give a platform to sick people.’ commented one reader on Metro.co.uk’s Facebook page in response to the story.

‘It’s only a computer game. Take the glasses off,’ wrote another.

No disrespect intended, but how the fk does that work ?

— Paul Sanderson (@PaulSan73978702) May 31, 2022

But other readers were quick to point out the incidious nature of committing sexual assault in a virtual world. As well as sympathising with the experience of the unnamed researcher.

‘Stop telling victims to turn the computer off, start telling perpetrators to turn their computer off. This is another form of victim blaming,’ commented Liz Oppong on Facebook. ‘If your daughter was sexually abused in virtual world you would want something done to stop it and punish the offence.’

Reader Tamara Tanner added: ‘This is a real problem and I genuinely believe people who are doing this online should be flagged and monitored by developers for future reference if it is needed.

‘Whilst being assaulted in the meta verse isn’t ‘real’ the risks of these behaviours slipping into real life are actually serious.’

While there will always be sniping, the issue of women’s safety online – whether in the metaverse or social media at large – needs to be addressed.

If something happens in the metaverse, is it actually real? (Credits: Getty)

‘The message from women who go online is loud and clear. They are less confident about their personal online safety, and feel the negative effects of harmful content like trolling more deeply,’ said Dame Melanie Dawes, the chief executive of Ofcom.

‘We urge tech companies to take women’s online safety concerns seriously and place people’s safety at the heart of their services.

‘That includes listening to feedback from users when they design their services and the algorithms that serve up content.’

‘This is an industry that’s not been regulated yet. It’s grown enormously fast, it’s got a lot to do to change and we will be holding the companies to account now on behalf of the public.’

Dawes believes the upcoming Online Safety Bill will help to mitigate the damage.

‘That’s what this regulation will really do to change things,’ she said.

This is not the first time women have reported sexual assault on the platform. In 2021, Nina Jane Patel, a psychotherapist and researcher reported being sexually assaulted on Horizon Worlds.

‘When you put a headset on, your real world is blocked out and all you see and hear is the virtual world,’ said Patel, a doctoral researcher of the metaverse investigating the psychological and physiological implications of immersion in virtual environments.

‘In some capacity, my physiological and psychological response was as though it happened in reality,’ said Patel, referring to her experience of virtual assault.

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SumOfUs also says Meta needs better plans to mitigate harms in the metaverse.

In February, Meta introduced a ‘personal boundary’ function that blocks others from getting too close while using Horizon Worlds.

It was hoped the new measure would help curtail harassment in the digital space.

‘A personal boundary prevents anyone from invading your avatar’s personal space,’ Horizon vice president Vivek Sharma wrote in a blog post introducing the new function on Friday.

‘If someone tries to enter your personal boundary, the system will halt their forward movement as they reach the boundary,’ Sharma added.

The company also restricts entrance to over-18s, but as with other online platforms, it is simple enough for youngsters to lie about their age to gain access.

At present, Horizon Worlds is only available in the US and Canada – but it is expected to launch in the UK before too long.

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