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Will GarbeNovember 19, 2021
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announces his company’s new name, Meta, and its new virtual reality "metaverse" during a virtual event on Oct. 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announces his company’s new name, Meta, and its new virtual reality "metaverse" during a virtual event on Oct. 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Each day, Facebook amplifies anger around the world. And the company’s own internal documents show how it seems unable or unwilling to fix the problem.

Anger and hate is the easiest way” to build a following on Facebook, company whistleblower Frances Haugen said last month in testimony before British lawmakers. “The current system is biased toward bad actors, and people who push people to the extremes.”

For this reason among others, Catholics and all people of good will should approach with serious skepticism the announcement by Meta (the new name of Facebook’s parent company) of a so-called metaverse, billed as “the next chapter of social connection.”

Arguments on Facebook are heated now. Imagine how much worse they will be when we virtually appear in the same room as our opponents yet still experience the feeling of anonymity our screens allow.

In the metaverse, company founder and chairman Mark Zuckerberg said last month, “you’re going to really feel like you’re there with other people. You’ll see their facial expressions, you’ll see body language.” When you want to take a break, you can “teleport to a private bubble, to be alone.” In other words, Facebook meets virtual reality.

Arguments on Facebook are heated now. Imagine how much worse they will be when we virtually appear in the same room as our opponents yet still experience the feeling of anonymity our screens allow, retreating to that “private bubble” after launching rhetorical grenades.

[The editors of America magazine: Facebook is threatening the common good.]

As a newspaper reporter in Ohio, I have seen how Facebook has eroded trust among neighbors by encouraging anger and a disregard for facts. For example, a City Council member in Huber Heights, a suburb of Dayton, was the target of unfounded attacks from a Facebook group alleging that his trip to Disney World was paid for by a city contractor. The attacks turned so acrid that the part-time public official deleted his personal Facebook account. A small online contingent of his neighbors had made public service unbearable.

“I just feel like I’ve been stalked for 12 months solid,” Mark Campbell told the Dayton Daily News after the city attorney cleared him of wrongdoing.

I worry the metaverse will further amplify this type of anger, which feeds off misinformation and harms both the public and its government servants.

I worry the metaverse will further amplify this type of anger, which feeds off misinformation and harms both the public and its government servants.

On the national stage, Ms. Haugen claims that Facebook turned off or rolled back safety measures after the 2020 election, even as users vowed to carry out what would become the riot on Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol. The company says that the documents leaked by Haugen are taken out of context and that Facebook does not intentionally push provocative material.

[Related: Sorry, Mark Zuckerberg: We Catholics want the real world, not the metaverse.]

Looking at the rest of the world, in Poland, where the vast majority of the country at least nominally identifies as Roman Catholic, Facebook is accused by political parties there of pushing the country toward a “social civil war.” Now the parties are adapting to the fact that inflammatory content is shared more widely on the social media platform, according to company documents reviewed by the Washington Post.

Far worse, Facebook “substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and dissension and conflict” in Myanmar, the United Nations’ independent fact-finder said in 2018, and social media played a “determining role” in the Rohingya genocide. In a statement from the company later that year, Facebook acknowledged that its product helped “foment division and incite offline violence” in Myanmar.

What might these scenarios look like in the metaverse? A study on “virtual reality gameplay,” completed by Canadian researchers in 2020, concluded that “for many users, the realness of the (virtual reality) experience intensifies negative emotions.” Combine this with a frank acknowledgment from a top Facebook executive that moderating how users speak and behave “at any meaningful scale is practically impossible” in the metaverse.

There is little question of the potential for technology to bring us closer together and to help us solve complex human issues. But given Facebook’s difficulty with curbing anger among its users and avoiding damages to the social fabric, we should ask if they have the standing to design our digital future.

St. Ignatius reminds us that all created things can draw us either toward or away from God. Facebook served as a lifeline for many during the pandemic. It brought us closer together when we could not see one another at Mass. But social media is also the site of some of the church’s worst disagreements and harshest anger.

[Related: Three reasons the Catholic Church should fight to regulate Facebook]

As a society, and often as individuals, we seem unable to break our addiction to anger, which encourages us to “live off grievances,” to borrow a term from Pope Francis in his book Let Us Dream.

This anger is opposed to the message of Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus uses the term “meek” in both self-descriptive and instructive ways. Jesus identifies himself as “meek and humble of heart” and directs followers to learn from this example. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says the blessed meek will “inherit the land.”

We often think of this meekness in the modern sense of being servile or weak, but the theological reality of meekness is the example of Jesus, who restrained himself under the provocation of his slanderous trial and humbled himself to die on the cross. Where anger might have seemed justified, Jesus repeatedly chose meekness.

Facebook instead enables the vice of wrath in ourselves. If we allow Facebook to design our future, we must be prepared for what we might receive: more division, more anger and less meekness. We hope to be among the meek who inherit the kingdom, but we risk being part of the angry who are inheriting the metaverse.

[Want to discuss politics with other America readers? Join our Facebook discussion group, moderated by America’s writers and editors.]

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