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The Metaverse: The Good the Bad and the Ugly

In recent months, diplomats have expressed growing interest in the Metaverse, the next stage of the internet. For diplomats, the Metaverse will bring many opportunities and challenges. In a truly digital world, diplomats will be able to digitally interact with publics across the world in fully immersive environments. Tourists will remotely visit nations before travelling physically while museums will offer remote access to national artistic treasures or historic sites. Yet, in a fully digital world, the power of disinformation and propaganda may grow exponentially. So, how can diplomats best prepare for the vision of the Metaverse?

Two weeks ago the Israeli foreign ministry, and the department of communications at Ben Gurion University, held a special workshop on how the Metaverse will impact diplomacy. In this post, I outline the risks and opportunities brought about by the Metaverse and summarize some key topics raised in the workshop by diplomats, academics and tech leaders.

Winston Churchill famously defined diplomacy as the art of telling someone to go to hell in a way that he actually looks forward to the journey. In my comments today, I shall aspire to be diplomatic as I discuss both the advantages and risks posed by the metaverse.

First, let us not delude ourselves. The Metaverse is not being built to better mankind but not generate profit. And the Metaverse shall be governed by the logic of profit. Notably, as we have seen in the case of social media, societal needs and the logic of profit often collide.

While social media has brought with it many benefits, ranging from networks of activists to crowdfunding humanitarian aid, it has also brought many ills- hate speech, violent rhetoric, racism and xenophobia- have all migrated and been emboldened online. The way in which current tech giants deal with these issues leaves much to be desired.

The Metaverse will be even more consuming then social media. We will truly lead digital lives. But who will regulate this new space? Who will determine what can and can’t be said? Who will be the arbiter of free speech and truth? Tech giants who can profit from hate and lies, or perhaps, diplomats who will embark on a multilateral effort to actively shape the vision of the Metaverse with tech companies.

Second, let us remember that for every action in the universe there is an equal and opposite reaction. Herein lies the great Digital Paradox- the more connected our world becomes, the more global it becomes the greater the rebuke of globalization and the rise of nationalism. Digital technologies enable ideas to easily transcend borders bringing with them revolutionary spirits. For some this is a blessing, for others a curse. The Metaverse as a vision is rooted firmly in the desire to create a digitally connected world. Yet its very creation may lead to an even greater rise in nationalism which ultimately harms diplomacy as narrow national interests trump the common good and compromise is frowned upon.

Like Frank Sinatra, Nationalists want all or nothing at all.

Third, let us take note that societies oscillate between digital optimism and digital pessimism. Such changes have a dramatic impact on diplomats. When social media were viewed as a positive force in society, and the harbingers of an Arab Spring, diplomats used social media to create digital Embassies. Yet once social media were also viewed as negative forces in society, filled with echo chambers of disinformation, diplomats created Big Data units to track and disable disinformation campaigns.

While the Metaverse does not yet exist, and thus is not positive or negative, we would be wise to proceed with caution while avoiding the temptation of digital optimism. Only an impartial assessment of the Metaverse will enable diplomats to contend with the good, the bad and the ugly.

Fourth, let us take a moment to remember that a war is currently being waged in Europe. A war in which truth was the first victim. The use of the Metaverse for disinformation purposes must be considered given the emergence of conflicting realities. Already now on social media, users encounter conflicting realities. According to the social media accounts of some diplomats there is a place called the Republic of Crimea. It has a border, a Parliament and passports. According to other diplomats there is no such place. It does not exist.

When used by diplomats, social media creates conflicting realities and makes it harder for people to make sense of the world. This breeds uncertainty and a nostalgic mindset. We yearn for the certainty of World War II or the Cold War when there was but one reality, one ally and one foe. The Metaverse, as a fully immersive experience, may be leveraged by states to create competing realities further impeding our ability to make sense of the world and increasing nostalgic longing for war and certainty.

In addition, immersive propaganda may prove far more lethal than current propaganda as seeing and sensing is believing. This means that the Metaverse will make it harder to dispel lies and conspiracy theories, the weapon de jour of totalitarian regimes. Once again, this raises the question of who will administer the Metaverse and raises the spectre of empowered totalitarianism

Diplomats and democracies- beware.

Finally, let us dispel the notion of a global internet. What we really have are splinter-nets: there is a Russian internet, an Iranian internet, a Chinese internet and so forth. The vision of a positive Metaverse, a truly global town square, rests on the ability to create a single space shared by all nations. But this will require that all nations join and share a single vision. Diplomats should lead this effort. Multilateral forums should become hubs of discourse and ingenuity enabling different countries, with different digital goals, to agree on one common digital space.

About the Author
Dr. Ilan Manor (PhD Oxford University) is a diplomacy scholar at Tel Aviv University. Manor's recent book, The Digitalization of Diplomacy, explores how digital technologies have reshaped diplomatic practices. Manor has contributed to several publications including The Times of Israel, The Jerusalem Post, Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward. According to his Twitter bio, Manor is the inventor of the ashtray. He blogs at www.digdipblog.com
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