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Metaverse has been branded an ‘online Wild West’ by child safety campaigners after Channel 4‘s Dispatches uncovered evidence of sexual abuse and racism in the virtual reality world.

An investigation has revealed that sexually explicit comments and threatening behaviour were made minutes after a Channel 4 journalist went undercover into Mark Zuckerberg‘s 3D community.

Led by the Facebook founder, the Metaverse is a set of virtual spaces where you can game, work and communicate with other people who aren’t in the same physical space as you.

Users’ avatars are able to explore the online world and meet, interact and visit a fast-growing network of virtual locations such as cities, country scenes or cafes.

But the new technology has faced accusations over a lack of safeguarding and moderation, with mother Nina Jane Patel claiming she was sexually assaulted less than a minute after entering the virtual online world earlier this year.

The Center for Countering Digital Hate also earlier found that users, including minors, ‘are exposed to abusive behaviour every seven minutes’.

Now a Channel 4 probe has raised further concern over the safety of the virtual world. 

Yinka Bokinni posed as both a 22-year-old woman and a 13-year-old girl as part of a probe that will be broadcast tonight.

Using the most popular VR headset, the Meta-owned Oculus Quest of which eight million have been sold, she tried out the two most popular apps on its store — VRChat and Rec Room.

However, within minutes of using both apps she became surrounded by other users making sexually explicit comments, while also witnessing the simulation of sexual acts while simply walking around – including between users who appeared to be minors. 

Dispatches journalist Yinka Bokinni posed as both a 22-year-old woman and a 13-year-old girl as part of a probe that will be broadcast tonight

Dispatches journalist Yinka Bokinni posed as both a 22-year-old woman and a 13-year-old girl as part of a probe that will be broadcast tonight

Dispatches journalist Yinka Bokinni posed as both a 22-year-old woman and a 13-year-old girl as part of a probe that will be broadcast tonight

People entering the Metaverse, controlled by Mark Zuckerberg's Meta, may be given 'god-like powers' to create their own virtual world, by speaking it into existence

People entering the Metaverse, controlled by Mark Zuckerberg's Meta, may be given 'god-like powers' to create their own virtual world, by speaking it into existence

People entering the Metaverse, controlled by Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta, may be given ‘god-like powers’ to create their own virtual world, by speaking it into existence

The investigation has revealed that sexually explicit comments and threatening behaviour were made minutes after a Channel 4 journalist went undercover in the Metaverse

The investigation has revealed that sexually explicit comments and threatening behaviour were made minutes after a Channel 4 journalist went undercover in the Metaverse

The investigation has revealed that sexually explicit comments and threatening behaviour were made minutes after a Channel 4 journalist went undercover in the Metaverse

Mark Zuckerberg, via video, speaking at Into the Metaverse in Austin, Texas, last month

Mark Zuckerberg, via video, speaking at Into the Metaverse in Austin, Texas, last month

Mark Zuckerberg, via video, speaking at Into the Metaverse in Austin, Texas, last month

What is the ‘Metaverse’? 

Led by the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, the ‘Metaverse’ is a set of virtual spaces where you can game, work and communicate with other people who aren’t in the same physical space as you.

Users’ avatars are able to explore the online world and meet, interact and visit a fast-growing network of virtual locations such as cities, country scenes or cafes. 

Landowners can also use their virtual spaces to design experiences for others to enjoy. 

Zuckerberg believes the virtual world is the future and launched the Oculus Quest headset, now called the Meta Quest.

Facebook explained: ‘You’ll be able to hang out with friends, work, play, learn, shop, create and more. 

‘It’s not necessarily about spending more time online — it’s about making the time you do spend online more meaningful.’

While Facebook is leading the charge with the metaverse, it explained that it isn’t a single product one company can build alone. 

‘Just like the internet, the metaverse exists whether Facebook is there or not,’ it added. 

‘And it won’t be built overnight. Many of these products will only be fully realized in the next 10-15 years.’ 

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Recalling her experience, Yinka said: ‘There was a lot of sexual harassment going on. It’s really intimidating. 

‘It’s shocking the level of racist, sexist and homophobic slurs flying around. Just because you put a headset on, all of a sudden you’re not responsible for what you say. 

‘It isn’t okay to do it in a classroom, in a workplace, on public transport, on the road, so why is it okay to do it in the Metaverse?’ 

VRChat, which is not made by Meta but can be downloaded from the store, has previously faced criticism after an investigation by the BBC found grooming, sexual material, racist insults and rape threats were prevalent in the app.

And the Channel 4 investigation has now found one user using racial slurs in the apps, while a second avatar said: ‘I just like little girls from the age of nine to 12, that’s just my thing.’

Ms Bokinni also came across sexually threatening behaviour from what appeared to be teenagers, while other users appeared to discuss sexual acts with children – including in the same room.

In another scene, a user was seen to use racist language, saying: ‘“You’re black. Imagine being black — get back to the fields, cotton-picker.’

It comes after a similar investigation by the Center for Countering Digital Hate found that users, including minors, ‘are exposed to abusive behaviour every seven minutes’. 

This included being exposed to sexual graphic content, bullying, sexual harassment and the abuse of others.

The probe also found ‘threats of violence and content mocking the 9/11 terror attacks’. 

Andy Burrows, the head of child safety online policy at NSPCC, told Channel 4: ‘Children are going into those spaces expecting that they will be safe. And what you’re seeing is spaces that are being designed to appeal to children, to draw children in, but then no even cursory attempt at safeguarding, or at moderating. You have an online Wild West.’

It follows similar comments from television presenter and online safety campaigner Carol Vorderman last week who warned of the dangers of the emerging ‘metaverse’ for young children as she called for new legislation to be brought in to protect users.

The presenter, 61, also compared the immersive technology to ‘the Wild West’ as she warned of the dangers of grooming and the affect it will have on the brain.

A previous investigation by the BBC found children as young as 13 have been going to virtual strip clubs (pictured) and seeing simulated sex

A previous investigation by the BBC found children as young as 13 have been going to virtual strip clubs (pictured) and seeing simulated sex

A previous investigation by the BBC found children as young as 13 have been going to virtual strip clubs (pictured) and seeing simulated sex

The BBC investigation found youngsters can 'get naked and do unspeakable things' or take part in 'erotic role-play' in the apps (pictured)

The BBC investigation found youngsters can 'get naked and do unspeakable things' or take part in 'erotic role-play' in the apps (pictured)

The BBC investigation found youngsters can ‘get naked and do unspeakable things’ or take part in ‘erotic role-play’ in the apps (pictured)

Tory MP Damian Collins also warned that ‘we should be genuinely frightened’ of the Metaverse, adding that problems in the real world could ‘exist in a way that it totally uncontrolled’ in the virtual world.

In January, mother Nina Jane Patel watched and listened in horror through a virtual-reality headset as her avatar was groped aggressively in a sustained attack by three realistic male characters. 

She had to tear off her headset – which covers her eyes and allows her to see the metaverse as her avatar sees it – to end the ordeal.

While she could not actually feel the avatars’ hands, Mrs Patel has suffered from anxiety since the attack – and fears for the safety of her three teenage girls and other women in this lawless virtual world.

A spokesperson for Meta said: ‘We don’t own these apps, and they can be used on phones, laptops and other VR devices, not just Quest. 

‘We encourage other companies to opt into the identity system we’ve created, because our system allows people to block or mute abusive users more effectively across all virtual worlds. We cannot take action against customers on devices we don’t own.

‘We offer tools that allow people to block other users from their experiences and report issues across the entire Quest platform so they have more control over their VR experiences.

‘We prohibit anyone under 13 from creating Quest accounts and design some experiences only for people 18 and over. 

‘We have a suite of VR parental supervision tools to help parents and carers who choose to allow teens 13 and over to use the headset to monitor their use, limit the time they spend using it and ensure they take breaks.’

Rec Room said users are able to limit the voices they hear on the app to only ‘friends, favourite friends, their current party or none”.

VRChat said: ‘Underage users are not permitted to register an account. If they lie about their age and are detected on our platform, they are immediately banned.

‘User safety is a top priority for VRChat, and we’ve provided users with a number of tools to help them protect themselves.’

Source: Daily Mail

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