Talking Points

Terrorism comes for the metaverse

So far, Mark Zuckerberg's "metaverse" is fairly unimpressive, a digital realm where people don't have legs and the future looks a lot like grocery shopping. It's easy to treat the whole thing as a joke, even while the tech industry grinds out new products to turn a half-baked idea into our near-future reality. 

But what if it ends up a breeding ground for terrorist activity?

A trio of terrorism researchers at the University of Nebraska Omaha is warning about that possibility, conjuring up the specter of a zombified digital "Osama bin Laden" who radicalizes recruits while extremists plot and use their metaverse avatars to train together — but in separate actual locations — to carry out real-life attacks. 

"A resurrected bin Laden could meet with would-be followers in a virtual rose garden or lecture hall," the trio writes at The Conversation. They added: "Violent extremists can plot from their living rooms, basements, or backyards — all while building social connections and trust in their peers. … When extremist leaders give orders for action in the physical world, these groups are likely to be more prepared than today's extremist groups because of their time in the metaverse."

That's serious stuff. It's a bit more difficult to worry about other scenarios, which by comparison amount to digital graffiti: "A metaverse wedding could be disrupted by attackers who disapprove of the religious or gendered pairing of the couple," the researchers write. "These acts would take a psychological toll and result in real-world harm." Maybe, but it sounds an awful lot like the "Zoombombing" phenomenon that emerged during the early months of the pandemic — a problem, to be sure, but worthy of being lumped in with terrorist attacks?

In any case, the metaverse seems to be a new wineskin being filled with old fears. Back in 2013, documents revealed by the whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that U.S. and British spies had infiltrated World of Warcraft and Second Life — online fantasy worlds with metaverse-style elements — to root out Islamic extremists. They reportedly didn't find much. "For terror groups looking to keep their communications secret, there are far more effective and easier ways to do so than putting on a troll avatar," one observer noted. The increasingly regimented nature of the major online platforms means it's more likely that violent radicals will flee to the "decentralized web," and away from Zuckerberg's sandbox, to do their plotting.

The Omaha researchers don't offer solutions to problems posed by potential metaverse extremists, saying only that the challenge requires creative thinking. They do make one good point, however: Wherever human activity extends, humanity's occasional propensity to do evil will follow. Even when that place isn't real.