Since their inception, terrorists have used the Internet and social media platforms to spread propaganda, communicate, incite, recruit, train, raise funding for their activities, and coordinate attacks off- and online. Today, with the emergence of the metaverse, new opportunities have unfolded for terrorist actors. This Insight examines some of the potential uses of the metaverse for terrorists and suggests preemptive measures to minimise the potential risks. It discusses the emergence of the metaverse and identifies six potential uses by terrorist actors: recruitment and indoctrination; planning and coordinating attacks; virtual training; spreading disinformation; financing terrorism and financial attacks. I then provide potential solutions for mitigating these risks.
The Emergence of the ‘Metaverse’
The term ‘metaverse’, combining ‘meta’ and ‘universe’, was first introduced in the 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash. The metaverse represents an amalgamation of the physical and virtual worlds in the digital sphere through 3D technologies and online communication devices like computers and smartphones. Large corporations are drawn to the metaverse because it appears to be the cutting-edge of digital and technological developments. In 2021, Mark Zuckerberg presented his vision for the future: “In the metaverse, you’ll be able to do almost anything you can imagine—get together with friends and family, work, learn, play, shop, create—as well as completely new experiences that don’t really fit how we think about computers or phones today”. Zuckerberg also announced that he would invest $50 million into partnerships with other firms to promote the metaverse concept and technology.
Other leading tech companies like Google, Microsoft, and NVIDIA started investing in metaverse development and were joined by low-tech giants like Nike, Walmart, Adidas, and PepsiCo. Projected to be a $760 billion business by 2026, the metaverse is already expanding, but as with other technological revolutions and developments, this potential and promise are fraught with possible negative ethical and social consequences associated with the massive use of these technologies.
Metaverse as a Toolbox for Terrorism
Like all technological innovations, the metaverse introduces new prospects, threats, and challenges, including its potential use by terrorists and violent extremists. Terrorism researchers at the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education (NCITE) concluded:
“We see a potential dark side to the metaverse. Although it is still under construction, its evolution promises new ways for extremists to exert influence through fear, threat, and coercion. Considering our research on malevolent creativity and innovation, there is potential for the metaverse to become a new domain for terrorist activity”.
The advancement of the metaverse will unlock new vulnerabilities to be utilised by terrorists, complicating existing counterterrorism measures. To assess potential threats, our method involved scanning the literature on the metaverse and similar platforms including academic papers and conference reports by international organisations like the European Commission, EUROPOL, the World Economic Forum, and the Council of the European Union. This scan resulted in a list of threats and risks that we collapsed into six categories, representing the most important and plausible challenges.
Recruitment and indoctrination
Imagine a resurrected virtual Osama bin Laden or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi interacting with would-be supporters in a virtual garden or lecture hall inside the metaverse. Combining artificial intelligence with augmented reality within the metaverse would allow extremist leaders to convene and meet with their supporters, develop and sustain virtual idealistic societies, and increase their spheres of influence. Due to the extreme realism of the emotional virtual environment made possible by the metaverse, it may be challenging for some individuals to differentiate between real life and virtual reality. Online recruiters for terrorist or violent extremist groups may, in future, be able to meet in a virtual room with potential followers and accelerate radicalisation processes.
Planning and Coordinating Attacks
The metaverse also presents new opportunities for planning, coordinating, preparing, and conducting acts of terror. Using augmented reality items such as AR headsets, operatives, potential attackers and followers can plan from within their homes while also creating networks and contacts and building trust in their counterparts. The metaverse can be used to circumvent classical communication channels when designing and preparing attacks, making it significantly more difficult for intelligence agencies to monitor. Using the capabilities of the metaverse, terrorists can organise online gatherings and share realistic and immersive experiences of attacks on various targets.
The metaverse could deliver secure and more effective training simulations for online instruction. Virtual reality (VR) technology makes the metaverse vulnerable to mishandling by violent extremists and terrorists, who could use it to provide and obtain combat training, including training in precision shooting, tactical training, hostage-taking, and surveillance. As noted by Senno, the gaming sector of the metaverse is susceptible to inadvertently hosting extremist activity because of the absence of oversight and the preservation of anonymity.
Disinformation can be a powerful weapon used to discredit authorities, institutions, and media channels. Terrorists and extremists have realised the potential of disinformation to fuel polarisation, distrust, loss of confidence, and panic. The challenges that disinformation poses in the metaverse are even more troublesome. Waltzman, a scientist at the Rand Corporation, warned that we are not even close to being able to defend users against the threats posed by the metaverse, where malicious actors will be able to take the age-old dark arts of deception and influence to new heights or depths:
”At the heart of all deception is emotional manipulation. Virtual reality environments…will enable psychological and emotional manipulation of [their] users at a level unimaginable in today’s media…It will provide a powerful set of tools to manipulate us effectively and efficiently”.
With the increasing use of cryptocurrencies, the metaverse offers terrorists with means to fund their activities anonymously. Financial blacklisting and tracing transactions would have little effectiveness in the metaverse due to the widespread uptake of cryptocurrencies. Such decentralised financing could assist terrorist organisations in growing their online networks.
Terrorists have used various forms of cybercrime to raise funds, launder and steal money, and attack financial institutions. According to a report by Elliptic, $14 billion worth of crypto assets were scammed in 2021 alone. Phishing and fraud scams are also common in the metaverse. These techniques may be useful for terrorists and extremists that already use online platforms for fundraising and fake charity activities.
Can We Have a Safer Metaverse?
The challenges of keeping the metaverse safe will require the participation of all relevant stakeholders, including governments, industries, academia, and civil society. There are several steps that may be combined to devise such a preemptive strategy:
It is vital for civil society and law enforcement to convey their demands early during the adoption of the metaverse by engaging with the main actors designing the metaverse platforms. Given the legislation in Western societies, it seems likely that some laws will limit the exploitation of the metaverse and cause the providers to act and implement safeguards. For example, there could be an API standard that law enforcement could use to connect to all relevant platforms for policing purposes.
Monitoring the Metaverse
A EUROPOL report concludes that “[w]e recommend law enforcement to monitor the development of the metaverse and to start building experience with online policing and early iterations of the metaverse”. Societies, governments, and security agencies use cyber surveillance and cyber monitoring methods to fight crime, terrorism, and online abuse.
There should be a method by which individuals’ identities can be confirmed before being permitted to enter the metaverse. Requiring individuals to identify themselves when creating their accounts and avatars may reduce identity theft on a large scale.
Educating users on measures they can take to safeguard their identities and acquisitions within the metaverse and the preventive actions they can take will play an important role. Because young people are often keen to learn, the knowledge they gain can assist them in providing a cyber defence for themselves and others.
Public and Private Partnership (PPP)
Public-private partnerships (PPP), a form of cooperation between the state and the private sector, are widely seen as necessary to combat terrorist use of the Internet in general and cyberterrorism in particular. According to Antigone Davis, the Global Head of Safety at Meta, it is critical to partner with governments, industries, academia, and civil society to provide wide-ranging security as the metaverse develops.
The history of the Internet and related technologies has taught us that the unexpected side effects of innovation may have the most significant consequences. Whatever the outcome may be, all relevant parties must partake in the development of metaverse or similar platforms and keep up-to-date on its future products. Understanding what is being devised by potential abusers will be essential for devising a preemptive strike strategy to counter terrorist attacks within the metaverse. There is an opportunity to proactively prepare and contribute to shaping a safer metaverse and similar platforms. It may be too late if we wait to build the safety measures after the metaverse is fully operational.
For a detailed report on this study, see Gabriel Weimann and Roy Dimant (2023). “Metaverse and Terrorism: Threats and Challenges”, issue XVII, Volume 2: 92-107, at: https://pt.icct.nl/article/metaverse-and-terrorism-threats-and-challenges
Gabriel Weimann is a Professor at Reichman University (Israel), a Professor Emeritus at the University of Haifa (Israel), and visiting professor at Georgetown University (Washington, DC). In the course of his long career, he has carried out research on a range of topics, including political communication, online terrorism, extremism, and cyberterrorism. He published nine books and over 200 scientific works and won numerous research grants and scholarly awards.