Earlier this month, Meta announcement he’s working on a set of ethical guidelines for “virtual influencers” — animated characters, usually computer-generated, designed to grab attention on social media.
When Facebook renamed itself Meta late last year, it announced a pivot to “metaverse– where virtual influencers will presumably one day roam by the thousands.
Even Meta Admits Metaverse doesn’t really exist yet. The building blocks of a persistent and immersive virtual reality for everything from business to gaming have yet to be fully assembled. But virtual influencers are already online and are surprisingly convincing.
But given its recent history, does Meta (born Facebook) really the right company to set the ethical standards for virtual influencers and the metaverse more broadly?
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Who (or what) are virtual influencers?
Meta’s announcement notes the “growing phenomenon” of synthetic media – an umbrella term for images, video, voice or text generated by computerized technology, typically using artificial intelligence (AI) or automation.
Many virtual influencers incorporate synthetic media elements into their design, ranging from fully digitally rendered bodies to digitally masked human models with the characters’ facial features.
At both ends of the scale, this process still relies heavily on human labor and input, from art direction for photoshoots to writing captions for social media. Like Meta’s vision of the metaverse, fully AI-generated and AI-powered influencers are a largely futuristic fantasy.
But even in their current form, virtual influencers are of great value to Meta, both as attractions for their existing platforms and as metaverse avatars.
Interest in virtual influencers has grown rapidly over the past five years, attracting large followings on social media and partnerships with major brands including Audi, Bose, Calvin Klein, Samsungand Chinese e-commerce platform TMall.
A competitive industry specializing in the production, management and promotion of virtual influencers has already emerged, although it remains largely unregulated.
So far, India is the only country reaching out to virtual influencers in national advertising standardsrequiring brands to “disclose to consumers that they are not interacting with a real human being” when posting sponsored content.
There is an urgent need for ethical guidelines, both to help producers and their partner brands navigate this new terrain, and more importantly to help users understand the content they interact with.
Meta a warned that “synthetic media has both good and bad potential”, listing “representation and cultural appropriation” as specific areas of concern.
Indeed, despite their short lifespan, virtual influencers already have a history of overt racialization and false declarationraising ethical questions for producers who create digital characters with different demographics than their own.
But it’s far from clear whether the guidelines offered by Meta will adequately answer these questions.
Becky Owen, Head of Innovation and Creator Solutions at Meta Creative Shop, noted the planned ethical framework “will help our brand partners and IV creators explore what is possible, likely and desirable, and what is not”.
This apparent emphasis on technological possibilities and the desires of brand partners inevitably gives the impression that Meta is once again confusing business potential with ethical practice.
On their own account, Meta’s platforms already host more than 200 virtual influencers. But virtual influencers also exist elsewhere: they exist viral dance challenges on TikTok, download vlogs to YouTube, and post-life updates on Sina Weibo. They appear “offline” in the malls of beijing and Singaporeto 3d billboards in Tokyo, and plays in tv commercials.
Game warden or poacher?
This brings us back to the question of whether Meta is the right company to set the ground rules for this emerging space.
The company’s history is marked by unethical behavior, from Facebook’s questionable beginnings in Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard dormitory (as illustrated in The social network) the large-scale breaches of privacy demonstrated in the Cambridge Analytica Scandal.
In February 2021, Facebook showed how far it was willing to go to defend its interests, as it briefly banned all news content on Facebook in Australia to force the federal government to water down Australia’s media trading code.
Last year, the former Facebook executive also saw Frances Haugen very publicly become a whistleblower, sharing a wealth of internal documents with journalists and politicians.
These so-calledFacebook Papersraised numerous concerns about the company’s conduct and ethics, including the revelation that Facebook’s own internal research has shown that Instagram can harming the mental health of young peopleeven leading to suicide.
Today, Meta fights US antitrust litigation which aims to curtail the company’s monopoly by potentially forcing it to sell key acquisitions including Instagram and WhatsApp.
Meanwhile, Meta is is working to integrate its messaging service into all three appsmaking them different interfaces for a shared back-end that Meta says arguably cannot be separated regardless of the outcome of the ongoing litigation.
Given this history, Meta seems far from the ideal choice as an ethical guardian of the Metaverse.
The already wide distribution of virtual influencers across platforms and marketplaces highlights the need for ethical guidelines that go beyond the interests of a single company – especially one with so much to gain from the impending spectacle.