The Department of Internal Affairs' service innovation and emerging technology team is developing a virtual reality tool to study the cause-and-effect chains of online hate speech.
Working with digital rights and ethics colleagues, the group is trying to understand how VR might be applied to explore the challenges of "online social norms".
"Back in the heady days at the birth of the internet, online communication began as polite exchanges, bad websites and cat memes, a post by Dr Hazel Bradshaw said.
"But, in today’s online world, politeness has been replaced with confrontation. Now, we have snowflakes, flamewars, doxing and industrialised outrage."
Bradshaw wrote that what we consider to be socially acceptable standards of behaviour in real life - for example, not shouting abuse in someone’s face - has become a grey area when we head online.
"With anonymity and the ‘safety’ of a screen between us, it appears our in-real-life social norms no longer apply."
The team developed a VR tool called the Online Social Norms VR, an experience that gives a sense of how the public service may begin to use near-future technologies to inform policy development for complex social issues.
The tool allowed senior leaders and analysts to see and understand the drivers and impacts of online hate speech and how the application of near-future technologies can support better informed and evidence-led policy development.
VR places the participant in a three-dimensional physical space inside the story, assume the point of view of a character and experiencing what they see and hear.
"This is a very different physical and emotional experience from exploring a scenario via a two-dimensional screen," Bradshaw wrote.
"For a topic such as online hate speech, where screens provide a safety barrier to perpetrators, using VR is a means to break the fourth wall and get inside an experience."
Userscan also experience the story from two perspectives - that of the perpetrator (Sean) and the victim (John).
John responds to a random, hateful tweet from home. Egged on by users of the 4Chan bulletin board, Sean sends hate-filled tweets, which are then escalated by online forums, resulting in John becoming a social media hate target.
There are two versions of the tool, one using substitute speech to imply hate speech and another using actual hate speech drawn from real examples.
With development complete, the lab has been inviting interested participants from across government to experience the tool.
The project has also now been presented and shared internationally as part of New Zealand’s contributions to the Digital Nations group, a collaborative network of the world’s leading digital governments .
DIA's service innovation and emerging technology team are now inviting interested individuals and community groups to engage with the work, which has been released open source on GitHub.
"VR falls in the category of technology called spatial computing," Bradshaw's post said.
"As this technology advances over the next 10 years, we’ll move away from screen and keyboard-based experiences and engage with online digital interactions in an environment that is more natural for humans - using natural body motion like hand gestures and by speaking, not typing."