Why you should care

Because seeing is believing.

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You never thought you’d set foot on this side of Rio de Janeiro. A hulking police officer towers above you, his assault rifle in your face. You shriek as a bullet whizzes toward your chest. And then, the live stream cuts out.

You’re spared. Safe in front of your laptop, thousands of miles from Brazil’s anti-Olympics protests — and, it turns out, part of a new and controversial type of activism: “virtuous” reality. Around the world, charities are using virtual reality to let first-worlders join the front lines of sit-ins, strikes, even revolutions. Witness, a human rights nonprofit, will let you march alongside protesters in Brazilian favelas with the help of its 360-degree, live-stream videos. Nonny de la Peña created Use of Force, a virtual reality film that places you alongside 32-year-old Anastasio Hernández-Rojas as he dies at the hands of the U.S. Border Patrol. And if that doesn’t make you want to grab a picket sign, a slew of activists and nonprofits are working to include touch, taste, smell and temperature into their do-gooder virtual experiences. Just imagine the stench of a solitary confinement cell, or the heat of a packed refugee camp.

In an era of widespread compassion fatigue, the goal is to use technology to break through apathy, much the way the Kony 2012 campaign and the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge went viral. Enhancing the good deeds of activists through VR will “propel social impact in ways we’ve never seen before,” predicts Lauren Burmaster, who launched the VR for Good initiative at Oculus. Indeed, a growing body of evidence suggests that lifelike virtual experiences can compel you to care about social issues and to change your behavior accordingly. That would mean not just signing pledges or sharing posts on Facebook, but actually ponying up some cold, hard cash.

Clouds over sidra

A still from the virtual reality film Clouds Over Sidra

Source UNICEF

It seems to be working for some organizations. The United Nations, in collaboration with UNICEF, raked in some $3.8 billion — more than double the typical haul for a campaign — after debuting its virtual reality experience inside a Jordanian refugee camp. The eight-minute film, Clouds Over Sidra, puts you in the shoes of 12-year-old Sidra, who narrates her day-to-day existence. You can walk the dry desert she crossed, stand in the bare-bones room she shares with three brothers, and learn times tables alongside her in a crowded classroom. Erica Kochi, co-founder of UNICEF’s Innovation Unit, says it’s not just for technophiles, Poindexters and gamers; virtual reality can be a potent way to “take part in a movement,” Kochi says, and feel intimately connected to it. After all, “it’s not just all super-fancy headsets,” she adds.

Yet there’s little doubt that in this case, the medium amplifies the message. “Virtual reality is closing that distance” between your apathy and the rest of the world, says Sun Joo Ahn, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia who researches the social impact of virtual reality. Experts hope this new medium can better conjure up the kind of walk-in-their-shoes empathy that nonprofits and activists say is necessary to inspire action — even on behalf of whales. On a worldwide tour from Orlando, Florida, to San Diego, PETA’s Alex Blount souped up his plea against killer whale captivity by handing out wireless Google VR goggles, instead of ho-hum pamphlets, to passersby. The goggles allowed people to virtually swim alongside a grieving mother orca as she mourned the capture of her baby.

Of course, who wouldn’t prefer a slick, shiny VR headset over the recitation of depressing facts about orcas? The emotive power of VR may diminish with time, as the technology becomes mundane, says Ahn. Ahn is cautious in these early adoption stages; she would be the first to tell you that “virtual reality is not a magic bullet, at least not yet.” High-tech doesn’t always equal high-impact, and activists who don’t heed such warnings could run the risk of peddling poverty porn to viewers while exploiting vulnerable communities through manufactured virtual reality experiences that feel eerily intrusive and out-of-body.

Indeed, rendering the suffering of people via virtual reality would strike many as the worst kind of poverty porn. From a certain angle, “virtuous reality” is just a higher-tech version of an appeal that humanitarian agencies have made for decades: shock advertising, sad-looking puppies, endless spam to “Act Now!” A 2011 study from global research agency OnePoll found a public inured to “shock” tactics, with 41 percent indicating that photographs or stories of suffering were an abuse of emotions. A more immersive experience might strike potential donors as outright manipulation.

Besides, the true test of activism is not how many heartstrings you can tug, says Sam Gregory, program director of Witness, but rather “how much it layers in understanding, compassion or solidarity … not just a sense of how shitty the world can be.” In other words, transporting someone to a virtual refugee camp for 10 minutes doesn’t exactly measure up to the reality of life in a refugee camp. “Emotionally draining people is no substitute for real action,” Gregory emphasizes. And there still need to be meaningful next steps, ones that go far beyond the virtual reality experience. Even so, there may be value in getting people out of their comfort zones.

But to make a real difference, you’ve still got to channel visceral reaction into concrete change. In other words, give real money. Bitcoin is not yet accepted.

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