Think Facebook can manipulate you? Look out for virtual reality

As Facebook users around the world are coming to understand, some of their favorite technologies can be used against them. It’s not just the scandal over psychological profiling firm Cambridge Analytica getting access to data from tens of millions of Facebook profiles. People’s filter bubbles are filled with carefully tailored information – and misinformation – altering their behavior and thinking, and even their votes.


People, both individually and as a society at large, are wrestling to understand how their newsfeeds turned against them. They are coming to realize exactly how carefully controlled Facebook feeds are, with highly tailored ads. That set of problems, though, pales in comparison to those posed by the next technological revolution, which is already underway: virtual reality.

On one hand, virtual worlds hold almost limitless potential. VR games can treat drug addiction and maybe help solve the opioid epidemic. Prison inmates can use VR simulations to prepare for life after their release. People are racing to enter these immersive experiences, which have the potential to be more psychologically powerful than any other technology to date: The first modern equipment offering the opportunity sold out in 14 minutes.

In these new worlds, every leaf, every stone on the virtual ground and every conversation is carefully constructed. In our research into the emerging definition of ethics in virtual reality, my colleagues and I interviewed the developers and early users of virtual reality to understand what risks are coming and how we can reduce them.

Intensity is going to level up

“VR is a very personal, intimate situation. When you wear a VR headset … you really believe it, it’s really immersive,” says one of the developers with whom we spoke. If someone harms you in VR, you’re going to feel it, and if someone manipulates you into believing something, it’s going to stick.

This immersion is what users want: “VR is really about being immersed … As opposed to a TV where I can constantly be distracted,” one user told us. That immersiveness is what gives VR unprecedented power: “really, what VR is trying to do here is duplicate reality where it tricks your mind.”

These tricks can be enjoyable – allowing people to fly helicopters or journey back to ancient Egypt. They can be helpful, offering pain management or treatment for psychological conditions.

But they can also be malicious. Even a common prank that friends play on each other online – logging in and posting as each other – can take on a whole new dimension. One VR user explains, “Someone can put on a VR head unit and go into a virtual world assuming your identity. I think that identity theft, if VR becomes mainstream, will become rampant.”

Data will be even more personal

VR will be able to collect data on a whole new level. Seemingly innocuous infrared sensors designed to help with motion sickness and alignment can capture near-perfect representations of users’ real-world surroundings.

Further, the data and interactions that give VR the power to treat and diagnose physical and mental health conditions can be used to hyper-personalize experiences and information to the precise vulnerabilities of individual users.

Combined, the intensity of virtual reality experiences and the even more personal data they collect present the specter of fake news that’s much more powerful than text articles and memes. Rather, immersive, personalized experiences may thoroughly convince people of entirely alternate realities, to which they are perfectly susceptible. Such immersive VR advertisements are on the horizon as early as this year.

Building a virtual future

A person who uses virtual reality is, often willingly, being controlled to far greater extents than were ever possible before. Everything a person sees and hears – and perhaps even feels or smells – is totally created by another person. That surrender brings both promise and peril. Perhaps in carefully constructed virtual worlds, people can solve problems that have eluded us in reality. But these virtual worlds will be built inside a real world that can’t be ignored.

While technologists and users are cleaning up the malicious, manipulative past, they’ll need to go far beyond making social media healthier. As carefully as developers are building virtual worlds themselves, society as a whole must intentionally and painstakingly construct the culture in which these technologies exist.

In many cases, developers are the first allies in this fight. Our research found that VR developers were more concerned about their users’ well-being than the users themselves. Yet, one developer admits that “the fact of the matter is … I can count on my fingers the number of experienced developers I’ve actually met.” Even experts have only begun to explore ethics, security, and privacy in virtual reality scenarios.

The developers we spoke with expressed a desire for guidelines on where to draw the boundaries, and how to prevent dangerous misuses of their platforms. As an initial step, we invited VR developers and users from nine online communities to work with us to create a set of guidelines for VR ethics. They made suggestions about inclusivity, protecting users from manipulative attackers and limits on data collection.

As the debacle with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica shows, though, people don’t always follow guidelines, or even platforms’ rules and policies – and the effects could be all the worse in this new VR world. But, our initial success reaching agreement on VR guidelines serves as a reminder that people can go beyond reckoning with the technologies others create: We can work together to create beneficial technologies we want.

— Elissa Redmiles, Ph.D. Student in Computer Science, University of Maryland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How to vaccinate the world’s most vulnerable? Build global partnerships.

Pfizer's partnerships strengthen their ability to deliver vaccines in developing countries.

Susan Silbermann, Global President of Pfizer Vaccines, looks on as a health care worker administers a vaccine in Rwanda. Photo: Courtesy of Pfizer.
  • Community healthcare workers face many challenges in their work, including often traveling far distances to see their clients
  • Pfizer is helping to drive the UN's sustainable development goals through partnerships.
  • Pfizer partnered with AMP and the World Health Organization to develop a training program for healthcare workers.
Keep reading Show less
Sponsored

Scientists find a horrible new way cocaine can damage your brain

Swiss researchers identify new dangers of modern cocaine.

Getty Images
Mind & Brain
  • Cocaine cut with anti-worming adulterant levamisole may cause brain damage.
  • Levamisole can thin out the prefrontal cortex and affect cognitive skills.
  • Government health programs should encourage testing of cocaine for purity.
Keep reading Show less

Bespoke suicide pods now available for death in style

Sarco assisted suicide pods come in three different styles, and allow you to die quickly and painlessly. They're even quite beautiful to look at.

The Sarco assisted suicide pod
Technology & Innovation

Death: it happens to everyone (except, apparently, Keanu Reeves). But while the impoverished and lower-class people of the world die in the same ol' ways—cancer, heart disease, and so forth—the upper classes can choose hip and cool new ways to die. Now, there's an assisted-suicide pod so chic and so stylin' that peeps (young people still say peeps, right?) are calling it the "Tesla" of death... it's called... the Sarco! 

Keep reading Show less
Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.