Americans were amazed to discover the political consequences of social media. The idea that platforms utilized for sharing baby pictures and arguing about diets may be used as propaganda tools probably shouldn’t have surprised us.

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Eventually, every medium is employed in a way the founders never thought, or maybe even dreamed up. The creation myth of Facebook as an online rating tool for college females doesn’t exactly suggest an eventual mechanism for overthrowing the democratic process. But occasionally hindsight affords us the gift of foresight. The question is, will we learn?

Given the line-up of the year’s Tribeca Immersive at the Tribeca Film Festival, filmmakers are definitely learning something about how to use the expanding immersive experience that Virtual Reality offers. Filmmakers are transforming the burgeoning medium of VR specifically into a political tool. We must wonder just how much this domain of entertainment is designed to entertain at all.

1000 Cut Journey

Creator of 1000 Cut Journey Courtney Cogburn, Creator of SPHERES: Pale Blue Dot Eliza McNitt, Executive Producer of Oculus VR for Good Amy Seidenwurm, Executive Producer of This is Climate Change, SVP of Documentary TV and Film Participant Media Elise Pearlstein and Moderator and co-founder of Electric South Ingrid Kopp speak on stage during Education and Advocacy in VR panel discussion in Tribeca Talks: Future of Film – 2018 Tribeca Film Festival at Spring Studios on April 24, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)

One of the topics at this year’s immersion, writes Angela Wattercutter, are”racism, the impact of atomic bombings, climate change, gentrification, LGBTQ equality, airport interrogation of Muslim travelers, and the white supremacy movement in the US.” An exhaustive breadth of societal issues in a medium that’s mostly been used by gamers and porn directors. Nevertheless all media has served a social role. Writing began as an accounting tool for keeping track of livestock and products, which is fundamentally a social tool. Maybe all media has ever shown this quality.

However, VR will shape not just entertainment but the way we relate to one another (just as writing did). VR as an experience is changing mall culture. In Los Angeles, an immersive pop-up has been sold out for months; the Tribeca Film crew launched a similar project at the World Trade Center site a couple of years back. While these experiences arguably have any social influence, their focus is on the intersection of retail and entertainment. That is not exactly what others are aiming for.

Columbia professor Courtney Cogburn has explored the subtle gestures and microaggressions rampant in racism. She was a part of the team that assisted Tribeca make a space for audiences of 1,000 Cut Journey to process what they’d just experienced. The movie was specifically created for viewing by liberal whites, according to Cogburn. Her expectation is that it will have a transformative power in their day to day reality, offering them a digital chance to empathize with what minority populations encounter on daily basis.

From an empirical sense, I’d want those people to be open to listening and maybe receive a new story differently or see data differently as a result of having gone through an experience like this.

Sol Rogers, founder & CEO of virtual reality company, REWIND, notes that politicians are also getting in on the game. Barack and Michelle Obama collaborated with an effects house to make a virtual tour of the White House, which Rogers says provides citizens a view inside of one of the most exclusive addresses in the entire world. While he says that VR companies are researching more”positive possibilities,” he can understand the potential for wicked ends, for example mass surveillance.

Stanford professor Fred Turner cites a 1922 statement from reporter Walter Lippmann, that discovered how photography was forming public opinion during World War I, and also the way that could be employed to control public. Whoever publishes photographs that frame specific messages hold political persuasion over voters.

The distance between photos and VR and Augmented Reality platforms is enormous. Turner considers the persuasive ability of devices such as the Oculus Rift will change the whole landscape of politics.

As the Oculus Rift and other devices come to market, we need to ask what it might mean to not simply see pictures in our heads, but to feel themlive with and within themmoment by moment.

Turner doesn’t deny VR’s positive applications, what he calls a instrument for”re-humanizing the media landscape.” He discusses walking through Los Angeles’s notorious Skid Row, waiting for aid atop structures during Hurricane Katrina, and travel via a Syrian refugee camp as illustrations for building compassion –a lot of the same qualities professed by Tribeca filmmakers.

VR Politics

Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin (L), former Israeli President Shimon Peres (C) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R), use virtual reality goggles during a service in the Peres Center for Peace in the coastal city of Jaffa, on July 21, 2016. (Photo by Dan Balilty/AFP/Getty Images)

Exposure is a strong antidote to ignorance. In this light, VR and AR make experiences inside the headset that resonate outside of it. This might be a way for producing something closer to democracy than we now experience. Through a shared understanding of the anguish and ordeals of the others, we now form closer bonds with people we never really meet.

Not that utopia is pending. Social networking was designed to bring us nearer together, and in certain ways it has. But we do not all play by the same rules. It’s simple to envision a populist leader developing a digital reality akin to North Korea. Additionally, it is easy to foresee corporations building worlds in which their services and products work.

Reality is easily manipulable; detecting deception in the virtual universe may prove as hard as recognizing it in World 1.0. As Turner concludes,

If immersive media are to truly serve democratic ends, we will need to confront not only the new psychological power of virtual environments, but the persistent political and economic powers of the world outside the headset.

That has always been tough. Whatever reality we choose, there’ll be no simple answers to something as complicated as human nature.