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“My name is Sidra”: how virtual reality could combat compassion fatigue

We look away from the suffering in humanitarian crises because it’s so vast. Virtual reality invites us to look at individuals’ experiences again.

In a 2015 Ted talk, artist and filmmaker Chris Milk argues that virtual reality can be “the ultimate empathy machine”. His virtual reality company, Vrse.works, has worked with the UN to produce a series of short virtual reality documentaries about the challenges facing mankind, from the Syrian refugee crisis to climate change.

“Virtual reality” refers to film-like experiences which attempt to replicate the real world. This could mean through the introduction of smells along with sight and sound, or the more common use of stereoscopy glasses or goggles to create an illusion of depth. Often, the viewer can interact in some way with the content of the film. 

The first UN virtual reality film, Clouds Over Sidra, is told from the point of view of 12-year-old Sidra, a Syrian refugee living in Jordan.  It’s beautifully produced and scored: the viewer moves through the rooms of Sidra’s temporary home, and using online controls we can follow her baby brother as he runs across the floor or look more closely at the family's sparse possessions. Sidra shows us around her school and the camp gym, where men work out, she thinks, “just to look good in the mirror”. We gradually learn of the horrors that have befallen her family as we walk through her world with her.

The aim of these films is to make us care about these crises on a deep, personal level. We know instinctively that it’s easier to emote with a single person than a faceless crowd of thousands, and this tactic takes that idea to its extreme: VR places you next to the person you could help with your donations, and allows you to directly engage by "walking" around the film yourself. The near-banality of Sidra’s film is its strength: the balance of dark and light in her life is easier to understand than a montage of outright misery, because it more closely mirrors our own.

Compassion fatigue is the subconscious decision to look away, because human suffering is so vast and horrifying. Virtual reality invites you to look around, to move deeper inside the crisis. You are literally, as Milk puts it, “inside the frame”.

As he explains in his Ted talk:

“You’re sitting on the same ground as [Sidra]. And because of that, you feel her humanity in a deeper way. You empathise with her in a deeper way.  I think that we can change minds with this machine”.

It is possible that he already has. The film was shown at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland last January, to people who, as Milk describes it, “wouldn’t otherwise be sitting in a tent in a refugee camp in Jordan”. As a result, it was also shown at the Humanitarian Pledging conference for Syria later that year, where $3.8bn was raised to tackle the crisis. Gabo Arora, a senior UN advisor, told development website Devex that the film was a “key reason” that the event generated far more than the $2.3bn originally expected.

An empathy machine?

The UN series is unquestionably affecting, and, hopefully, effective, but it’s not clear yet whether virtual reality really is better at making us emote than other types of media.

One study has tried to pin this down, to some surprising results. “Through the Eyes of a Bystander: Understanding VR and Video Effectiveness on Bystander Empathy, Presence, Behavior, and Attitude in Bullying Situations”, a 2015 study carried out by researchers at Virginia Tech, placed participants as bystanders in a bullying scenario. There were three different environments; two virtual reality, one video.

Responses to the three were very similar, except on a single metric: empathy. Surprisingly, participants in the virtual reality scenarios (which used graphics rather than filming) had less empathy for the victim than in a normal video.

The researchers weren’t 100 per cent sure which elements of virtual reality led to the lower empathy levels, but they hypothesise that we relate strongly to things that look “real”, as opposed to virtual scenarios which simply have a 360-degree purview. Therefore, they write, “findings here suggest that photorealistic graphics should be used in VR simulations to evoke empathy”.

Perhaps the best way to think about it is to imagine media as a spectrum, where at one end is a static line drawing and at the other is real experience. We’re more likely to relate to media products on the latter end of the spectrum, such as live-action films, especially in 3D.

Therefore, while it hasn’t been tested in a comparable study, the extension of this logic is that UN style of live-action virtual reality (achieved using 360 degree cameras) could evoke even more empathy than both live-action films, or virtual reality using graphics.

For now, we're left with Milk’s promise that VR “connects humans to humans in a profound way that I’ve never seen before in any other form of media. It can change peoples’ perception of each other. VR has the potential to actually change the world.”

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

Italy's populist Five Star Movement (M5S) party leader Luigi Di Maio. CREDIT: GETTY
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Five Star’s “just fix it!” politics and the new age of digital populism

 In the Italian election, Five Star made radical and exciting promises – like a monthly universal basic income of around €780.

One evening in 2004, after finishing a performance of his comedy show Black Out, Beppe Grillo was approached by a tall, austere-looking man called Gianroberto Casaleggio, an IT specialist who ran a web consulting firm. He told Grillo that he could create a blog for him that would transform Italian politics. The internet, Casaleggio explained, would change everything. Political parties and newspaper editors were no longer needed. They could be “disintermediated”.

Grillo, a household name in Italy, was not particularly interested in technology but he was interested in politics. The following year the pair created the promised blog and Grillo began writing about cronyism, green issues and the power of the web to smash what he considered a corrupt, elitist and closed political system. Thousands, then millions, of frustrated Italians flocked to his site. They began using another website, meetup.com, to gather offline to discuss Grillo’s latest post, and co-ordinate campaigns and rallies. It was heady stuff.

In 2007, this fledgling movement held Vaffanculo Day (which roughly translates to “fuck off day”), an event directed at the suits in charge. Grillo crowd-surfed the thousands who’d turned out in Bologna’s main square in a red dingy. Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the respected centre-left newspaper La Repubblica, wrote an editorial titled “The barbaric invasion of Beppe Grillo”.

In the age of Russian trolls and algorithmic ads, it’s easy to forget how optimistic the mood around digital politics was in the late Noughties. Occupy, the Pirate Party and Barack Obama all seemed to presage the end of tired old hierarchies. They were getting a digital upgrade: open, inclusive and more democratic. Grillo led the charge: in 2009 he declared that his band of online followers would stand in elections as the Five Star Movement. The group refused state funding, capped its MPs’ salaries at the average national wage, and pledged to publish all proposed bills online three months before approval to allow for public comment. All major policy decisions would be taken by votes on the blog, including candidate selections.

Seasoned political analysts dismissed Five Star as a bunch of bloggers and kids, led by a clown. But the movement started achieving local successes, especially in Italy’s poorer south. By 2012 there were 500 local groups and in the following year’s general election, Five Star won 25 per cent of the vote. Analysts repeatedly predicted that normal service would be resumed – but it never was.

In the Italian general election earlier this month, Five Star won 32 per cent of the vote, and 227 seats, easily making it the largest single party. (Grillo, who is 69, distanced himself from Five Star before this triumph. He remains the “guarantor”, but the new leader is 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio.) In a hung parliament, Five Star is currently in a stalemate with Italy’s right-wing alliance (the Northern League, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the Brothers of Italy), which collectively secured more seats.

While Five Star has declared its commitment to direct democracy, many major decisions are taken by a small cadre, which has alienated some early supporters. Its occasional dalliances with power – the current mayor of Rome is Five Star’s Virginia Raggi – have been largely unsuccessful. Yet more than any other movement in Europe, Five Star demonstrates how digital upstarts can demolish years of cosy centrist consensus. Meet-ups are full of sparky, motivated activists – rather like the Corbynite Momentum – who combine online and offline techniques to deliver their message.

Five Star’s political ideas appear radical and exciting, especially to places blighted by economic stagnation. In the Italian election, Five Star promised a monthly universal basic income of around €780 for every adult.

Yet the movement’s rise also reveals the darker side of digital politics. Five Star is unashamedly populist and divisive, pitting the good, honest, ordinary citizen against the out-of-touch professional political class. Ever noticed how all populists, whether left or right, seem to love social media? Nigel Farage, Bernie Sanders, Marine Le Pen, Syriza and, of course, Donald Trump are all avid adopters. It’s partly because short, emotional messages, the populist stock-in-trade, spread so well online. Grillo frequently insults his opponents – he used to call the former Italian prime minister Mario Monti “Rigor Montis” – and new Five Star leader Di Maio recently called for the immediate halt of the “sea taxi service” that rescues migrants in the Mediterranean. There’s a receptive online audience for such content. And the blog is central to Five Star, just as Twitter is to Trump, because, it says, it allows it to circumnavigate the self-interested establishment, and deliver “the truth” straight to the people.

But the love affair runs deeper than clickable posts. The internet is inculcating all of us with new, unrealistic expectations. I call it “just fix it!” politics. Everything online is fast and personalised, answers are simple and immediate. The unhappy compromise and frustrating plod of politics looks increasingly inadequate by comparison, which fuels impatience and even rage.

Populists promise to cut through the tedium with swift and obvious answers, and in that sense they are tuned in to how we live as consumers. By contrast, centrist parties have struggled in the digital age because their watery, dull promises are weighed down by practical know-how and association with power. (“Boring! Traitors!”)

The rage of the jilted lover knows few bounds. This is the problem with all populist movements: what happens when things aren’t as easy as promised? A few days after Five Star’s stunning election result, dozens of young Italians turned up at job centres in Puglia, demanding their €780 monthly basic income. Should Five Star form a government, millions of Italians will turn up with them – and demand a lot more than a few hundred euros. 

Jamie Bartlett is the author of “Radicals: Outsiders Changing the World” (Windmill Books)

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game