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POV: Facebook’s Change to Meta Blurs Lines Even Further

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COM’s Michelle Amazeen worries if people will know the difference between real-world and virtual experiences

When Facebook announced it was changing its name to Meta in October, the 2008 Pixar movie WALL-E was the first thing that came to my mind. The sci-fi movie is about a robot left on an uninhabitable Earth to clean up the garbage left behind by humans. Rampant consumerism and corporate greed have left Earth a wasteland, and humans have been evacuated to outer space. In this same way, I envision Facebook abandoning the real world for the virtual “metaverse”—shared online environments where people can interact. They leave behind unimaginable quantities of disinformation, amplified by their algorithms, along with harassment, hate speech, and angry partisans.

To move beyond my initial reaction and gain more insight into the implications of Facebook’s name change (and strategic plans) from a communication research perspective, I turned to two research fellows who study emerging media within the Communication Research Center (CRC) at Boston University’s College of Communication (COM).

Media psychologist James Cummings, a COM assistant professor of emerging media studies, indicates that a metaverse—if successful—would produce new issues in information processing and would place a new emphasis on theories of interpersonal communication—rather than just mass communication. As I feared, he also says it has the potential to augment existing media effects of concern related to social networking, namely misinformation, persuasion, addiction, and distraction.

First, Cummings explains there would be major implications for how billions of people select, process, and are influenced by media content. To be successful, the metaverse platforms will need to transform current modes of information processing and digital communication interactions into much more immersive, cognitively absorbing experiences.

“For instance,” he says, “the mainstreaming of consumer-facing immersive ‘virtual reality’ [VR]—which typically places high demands on users’ processing—will be coming in an age of media multitasking. Interfaces will need to figure out how to immerse users while still permitting them to access different information streams.”

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Similarly, he says, mainstreaming “augmented reality” (AR) experiences will also mean requiring users to skillfully juggle attentional demands. People will suddenly be forced to multitask between virtual and real-world stimuli. These are common practices for hobbyists, but may present more challenges for a broader population of users.

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Thus, Cummings suggests, if the metaverse is the ecosystem of devices and experiences that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg envisions, users will be switching back and forth between different types of immersive experiences and stimuli, from reality to augmented reality to virtual reality. This scenario may present some new and interesting psychological experiences, in the effects of in-person (e.g., chatting with a friend in the same room), mediated (e.g., reading a news alert on your phone), and augmented messages (e.g., a holographic personal assistant)—all interdependent and blurring together.

Second, Cummings expects that a successful metaverse would mean exchanges with virtual content and people that are much more like face-to-face or interpersonal interactions. “This will require the designers of these platforms to master key elements of media richness theory and factors influencing users’ sense of spatial and social presence,” he explains. For instance, social networking in the metaverse may not only consist of the informational experiences we are used to today (e.g., reading text, watching videos, viewing pictures), but increasingly also perceptual experiences (e.g., a sense of being transported into the story, a feeling of being next to someone on the other side of the globe, noticing nonverbal behaviors).

Finally, Cummings indicates that immersive media are rife for a whole new breed of covert persuasion—such as “native advertising,” or ads that mimic their surroundings—to the extent that users confuse the perceptually plausible with the real. He’s particularly interested in seeing the impact of immersion on users’ perceptions of message authorship and authorial intent.

Indeed, back in the real world, native advertising has been widely adopted to covertly promote not only commercial products, but also political candidates. Candidates are increasingly relying upon “influencers” to post supportive messages on Facebook and other social media without consistently disclosing they are being paid to do so, blurring the critical line between what is real news and what is merely paid advertising. As I have previously addressed here, if the regulatory agencies that oversee advertising—both commercial and political—have not been able to keep up with the digital transformation of our media ecosystem, how will they be able to regulate the metaverse?

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For Chris Wells, a COM associate professor of emerging media studies, the promise and pitfalls of the metaverse depend entirely on how Facebook rolls it out. For example, the radical network effects we see from social media rely to some degree on the extremely shortened forms of communication—short texts and short videos—that allow information scanning and selection on a very rapid scale. He indicates the pseudo-social presence of virtual reality would seem to reduce the number of people you can actually interact with. “How will the metaverse be organized and who will you be able to interact with?” Wells asks. Are people going to have coffee virtually? Virtual meetings? He suggests that a site such as Second Life may offer rudimentary evidence of the kinds of interactions that emerge when people engage with strangers in a massive virtual world.

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Presumably, Wells suggests, Facebook will still have to provide a great deal of content moderation in the metaverse if people are to have any interactions outside tightly defined networks. “Given Facebook’s track record with their current platform,” he says, “this could well be an unmitigated disaster; but expecting this may lead them to tightly control who interacts with whom and in what ways.”

Second Life notwithstanding, Wells also questions who will actually want to engage in such a virtual space. “My read of the pandemic is that people don’t particularly want to keep sitting in their bedrooms and interacting through Zoom,” he says.

“Will wearing an Oculus headset make that a lot better? I’m not sure,” he adds. “But I also suspect that there are at least a lot of people for whom going to a virtual concert or playing virtual chess with a friend in the park are paltry substitutes for the real thing.”

Wells concedes that there are a lot of millennials and Gen Zs who spend a lot of time in their bedrooms on video games, with digital avatars, and so forth. One possibility, he says, is that the metaverse becomes a niche space for these sorts of folks.

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As these metaverse developments take shape, CRC fellows are well positioned to monitor these emerging media uses and perceptual effects. The CRC has multiple Oculus virtual reality headsets that can be paired with our psychophysiological measurement tools. For as technology takes us to new realms, we have a responsibility back in reality to analyze and understand how humans are affected.

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Michelle Amazeen is a College of Communication associate professor and director of COM’s Communication Research Center.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact John O’Rourke at orourkej@bu.eduBU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.

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Updating Special Ad Audiences for housing, employment, and credit advertisers

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On June 21, 2022 we announced an important settlement with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that will change the way we deliver housing ads to people residing in the US. Specifically, we are building into our ads system a method designed to make sure the audience that ends up seeing a housing ad more closely reflects the eligible targeted audience for that ad.

As part of this agreement, we will also be sunsetting Special Ad Audiences, a tool that lets advertisers expand their audiences for ad sets related to housing. We are choosing to sunset this for employment and credit ads as well. In 2019, in addition to eliminating certain targeting options for housing, employment and credit ads, we introduced Special Ad Audiences as an alternative to Lookalike Audiences. But the field of fairness in machine learning is a dynamic and evolving one, and Special Ad Audiences was an early way to address concerns. Now, our focus will move to new approaches to improve fairness, including the method previously announced.

What’s happening: We’re removing the ability to create Special Ad Audiences via Ads Manager beginning on August 25, 2022.

Beginning October 12th, 2022, we will pause any remaining ad sets that contain Special Ad Audiences. These ad sets may be restarted once advertisers have removed any and all Special Ad Audiences from those ad sets. We are providing a two month window between preventing new Special Ad Audiences and pausing existing Special Ad Audiences to enable advertisers the time to adjust budgets and strategies as needed.

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For more details, please visit our Newsroom post.

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Impact to Advertisers using Marketing API on September 13, 2022

For advertisers and partners using the API listed below, the blocking of new Special Ad Audience creation will present a breaking change on all versions. Beginning August 15, 2022, developers can start to implement the code changes, and will have until September 13, 2022, when the non-versioning change occurs and prior values are deprecated. Refer below to the list of impacted endpoints related to this deprecation:

For reading audience:

  • endpoint gr:get:AdAccount/customaudiences
  • field operation_status

For adset creation:

  • endpoint gr:post:AdAccount/adsets
  • field subtype

For adset editing:

  • endpoint gr:post:AdCampaign
  • field subtype

For custom audience creation:

  • endpoint gr:post:AdAccount/customaudiences
  • field subtype

For custom audience editing:

  • endpoint gr:post:CustomAudience

Please refer to the developer documentation for further details to support code implementation.

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Introducing an Update to the Data Protection Assessment

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Over the coming year, some apps with access to certain types of user data on our platforms will be required to complete the annual Data Protection Assessment. We have made a number of improvements to this process since our launch last year, when we introduced our first iteration of the assessment.

The updated Data Protection Assessment will include a new developer experience that is enhanced through streamlined communications, direct support, and clear status updates. Today, we’re sharing what you can expect from these new updates and how you can best prepare for completing this important privacy requirement if your app is within scope.

If your app is in scope for the Data Protection Assessment, and you’re an app admin, you’ll receive an email and a message in your app’s Alert Inbox when it’s time to complete the annual assessment. You and your team of experts will then have 60 calendar days to complete the assessment. We’ve built a new platform that enhances the user experience of completing the Data Protection Assessment. These updates to the platform are based on learnings over the past year from our partnership with the developer community. When completing the assessment, you can expect:

  • Streamlined communication: All communications and required actions will be through the My Apps page. You’ll be notified of pending communications requiring your response via your Alerts Inbox, email, and notifications in the My Apps page.

    Note: Other programs may still communicate with you through the App Contact Email.

  • Available support: Ability to engage with Meta teams via the Support tool to seek clarification on the questions within the Data Protection Assessment prior to submission and help with any requests for more info, or to resolve violations.

    Note: To access this feature, you will need to add the app and app admins to your Business Manager. Please refer to those links for step-by-step guides.

  • Clear status updates: Easy to understand status and timeline indicators throughout the process in the App Dashboard, App Settings, and My Apps page.
  • Straightforward reviewer follow-ups: Streamlined experience for any follow-ups from our reviewers, all via developers.facebook.com.

We’ve included a brief video that provides a walkthrough of the experience you’ll have with the Data Protection Assessment:

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The Data Protection Assessment elevates the importance of data security and helps gain the trust of the billions of people who use our products and services around the world. That’s why we are committed to providing a seamless experience for our partners as you complete this important privacy requirement.

Here is what you can do now to prepare for the assessment:

  1. Make sure you are reachable: Update your developer or business account contact email and notification settings.
  2. Review the questions in the Data Protection Assessment and engage with your teams on how best to answer these questions. You may have to enlist the help of your legal and information security points of contact to answer some parts of the assessment.
  3. Review Meta Platform Terms and our Developer Policies.

We know that when people choose to share their data, we’re able to work with the developer community to safely deliver rich and relevant experiences that create value for people and businesses. It’s a privilege we share when people grant us access to their data, and it’s imperative that we protect that data in order to maintain and build upon their trust. This is why the Data Protection Assessment focuses on data use, data sharing and data security.

Data privacy is challenging and complex, and we’re dedicated to continuously improving the processes to safeguard user privacy on our platform. Thank you for partnering with us as we continue to build a safer, more sustainable platform.

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Resources for Completing App Store Data Practice Questionnaires for Apps That Include the Facebook or Audience Network SDK

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Resources for Completing App Store Data Practice Questionnaires for Apps That Include the Facebook or Audience Network SDK

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