The owners of the Metaverse will possess virtually unlimited power. The pillar of democracy is that of the separation of powers: the legislative, executive and judicial are distinct and check each other. Yet, nothing guarantees that this precept will be observed in the Metaverse.

This is possibly the normality of things: the development of metaverse systems is a complex endeavor necessitating coordination and humongous amounts of capital. In general terms, brick-and-mortar nations were also born through the initiative of some ambitious leader – whose descendants later decided to assign power to the people. We could expect that something similar might happen for the Metaverse.

Still, this is not the necessary development of things: as economist John Maynard Keynes said, “in the long term we will all be dead”. This means that it is not a solution to simply wait for the Metaverse to democratize and become the digital Eden we’ve been all waiting for. It would be unfair and plain dangerous.

When we talk about the Metaverse we have to consider that the system is not just a means for expression and communication, but rather a context powered by algorithms and artificial intelligence whose final aim is to influence people and lead them to compatible behaviors.

This is no conspiracy theory, although admittedly it might sound like one. It is more of a consideration based on the experience we’ve made with the internet. It has been proven that exposition to certain socials has the side effect of extremizing opinions, because algorithms have the tendency to present viewers with information mirroring their opinions. Still, the aim of the algorithms is to have people spending more time on socials – and therefore the by-consequence of extremization is a necessary evil, at least in commercial terms.

The consequences of this approach appeared incontrovertible during the farcical assault on Capitol Hill in January 2021, and more or less at the same time when an absolute truth like the efficacy of Covid vaccines started to be questioned by a solid chunk of the population in industrialized countries. It took a lot of effort from (democratic) lawmakers to make sure that certain conspiracy theories would be filtered out from research results, and that controversial information would be supplemented by links to more reliable sources.

The point is that we generally tend to overestimate the “absolute” nature of our personalities, whereas we tend to be more of a product of experiences, companies and education: things that for the most part we don’t really choose. Some people are more prone to be influenced, and some are less: still, everybody is influenceable to a certain degree. With an adequate treatment, people can radically change their opinion: our brains are much more flexible than we imagine.

Patty Hearst

I am aware of the fact that this claim involves important question concerning religion, philosophy and moral responsibility – but to some extent we can safely agree that personality is influenced by circumstances. It may go to the extremes. One of the most poignant examples I can think of is that of heiress Patty Hearst, who was kidnapped in 1974 by a picturesque – but very violent – leftist group called “Symbionese Liberation Army”. The terrorist issued some unfeasible ransom demands of monetary and political kind, meant possibly as first steps towards the fall of the western version of capitalism. Their most notable achievement was of different kind: some months after her disappearance, it turned out that Mrs. Hearst had become a full member of the group and participated to a bank heist in San Francisco. She had been brainwashed.

The judges that sentenced her to 35 years of prison after her arrest didn’t seem to believe that much in the story of her being influenced by her captors: she was held fully accountable for her crimes (she did some more Symbionese stuff after the San Francisco job). President Carter later freed her, and Bill Clinton pardoned her.

Now: it is a little of a stretch to claim that socials are as dangerous as brain-washing tricks perpetrated by the kidnappers of Patty Hearst. Still, the creation of social-media defined news contexts is able to create monsters of some kind. Some of these monsters actually dress up as monsters, like Capitol Hills’ self-proclaimed witch doctor Jake Angeli and his bull-horns. Now – one doesn’t have to go all the way and become a Jake Angeli or a Patty Hearst, but to some degree our opinions are rendered more extreme if they are not confronted with different versions of reality. In the words of Michael Workman, associate professor at Texas A&M, “when people are seeking new information about a topic, […] social media can change people’s minds. But if they have already made up their minds on something, say politics or religion, they mostly seek out information to confirm what they already believe[1]”. Day after day, post after post, step by step – social confirm one’s beliefs and people become extremer. Some of them do even turn into terrorists[2].

Jake Angeli

Imagine now what could happen in the Metaverse. Social media are just a bunch of words: posts, comments, likes and dislikes. The Metaverse goes way beyond that: it is a more complete atmosphere of look and feel. Instead of a page about no-vaxxers, one could join some permanent “no-vaxxers” party and be subject to a wider and deeper range of influences.

The question concerns not only political or social opinions (or medical ones, for what covid matters), but also marketing. The basic aim of commercial communication is to create a message that provokes the action of purchasing something. The use of artificial intelligence in socials and web communication at large is proving particularly able at provoking the “action” of consume. Not by chance, in 2020 some 84% of marketers were reporting to use AI to set their campaigns[3].

For the time being, Metaverse marketing experiences are limited to brand events or branded e-products, but future chances are limitless. Take for example the possibility of creating an AI powered avatar that behaves like a human and claims to be your best-avatar friend – a little bit like the movie “Her” by Spike Jones, but in the Metaverse. This AI-avatar might ignite your talents of empathy and trust, and then – little by little – provoke the actions of purchasing something. Or even, alter your opinions, through AI optimized psychological strategies. Imagine a Metaverse where there is thousands of avatars like that, fighting for relevance.

The difference between traditional internet and the Metaverse is that in the former case we landed into a wide set of problems because we were wandering into uncharted territory. The Metaverse is different: we more or less know what is going to happen. With some exceptions (like “Decentraland”) it is not really a grass-roots movement: big and powerful players know what they want to do and are investing billions of dollars into it.

In the case of the internet, policymakers were very slow to react mostly because they needed some time to understand the threats they had to face. They cannot make the same mistake with the Metaverse, and the biggest mistake would be that of subletting the task of regulation to those who own the Metaverse. It is the intervention of the state that will make sure that also in the Metaverse powers will be separated – and as such it will become a true tool for freedom and expression, and not a though-altering machine controlled by the few.

[1] See: https://education.tamu.edu/can-social-media-change-our-opinions/

[2] See: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-15168-7_15

[3] See: https://www.salesforce.com/news/stories/sixth-state-of-marketing-report-reveals-priorities-and-challenges-for-a-new-decade/