Virtual reality and poverty stereotypes: handle with care

Passers-by try on VR headsets for a clean water campaign in NYC

The digital age has brought fierce competition to the charity fundraising sector and the purveyors of billboards and bus adverts that helped to shape this little girl's perceptions. Thanks to a dearth of information, fundraisers must now fight with Twitter feeds, cookie-led pop-ups that stalk users around the internet and Candy Crush alerts to win the attention span and empathy of potential donors. However, Virtual Reality could be set to change all that.

In 2015 I travelled to Uganda for Christmas. At Entebbe airport waiting in line for arrivals, I started talking to the woman next to me. She was Ugandan, lived in London and was on her way home for Christmas, travelling with 3 children. She explained it would be the first time for her youngest daughter, of 6 years, to visit the country, having grown up in the UK. The kid chimed in- she was visibly delighted and started declaring her excitement to the rest of the airport when she suddenly scrunched up her face and gasped. “But MUM! Will there be toilets in Uganda? Can I have a shower there?” The girl’s mother rolled her eyes, flashed her phone screensaver at me: their house. A two-story gated home, SUV on the drive, jacarandas sheltering a generous compound. She shook her head. “That’s where she’s going and she’s worried there won’t be toilets.”

This, dear reader, is the product of stories and stereotypes repeated over and over again. A 6 year old child, growing up with a Ugandan mother, in a family who are the owners of prime real estate and Range Rovers, had somehow been led to believe that she would not have access to a toilet in Uganda. Having never visited Uganda, her perception was based on what she had learnt about Africa from afar, in London; through Comic Relief, on tube billboards and bus adverts. Overwhelmingly, the lesson there is loud and clear: Africans are desperate and need your help.

The last few years has seen the charity fundraising keen to embrace new tech, in the form of VR, to get its campaign messages across. The 3D, computer-generated films that closely simulate real life thanks to the “immersive” experience users encounter when they put on a VR headset. The technology could help to alleviate the apparent shortage of empathy being encountered by third-sector fundraisers in a saturated market; evidence suggests that VR elicits much stronger feelings of empathy than traditional advertising formats, such as TV and posters.

However, VR has the ability to do more than stir up emotions. It also has the potential to reinforce stereotypes of poverty and to exploit emotions to procure funds, deepening skewed perceptions of the relationship between charity’s donors and its recipients.

Without a doubt, VR headsets have, thus far, proved very successful in street fundraising campaigns. If you can work past the saccharine muzak in this video report, UNICEF New Zealand makes clear that use of VR doubles the number of donations that would be expected from a traditional street fundraising campaign.

This is fantastic news for charity organisations that rely on fundraising for their work, and the sector has duly applauded this nascent technology, awarding Third Sector prizes to Amnesty International’s 360Syria campaign in 2016 for the use of footage adjusted for VR that allowed viewers to ‘step’ onto the streets of bombed-out Aleppo.

However, while VR’s exciting potential may be the magic bullet fundraisers are searching for to re-engage donors, it is important to consider the implications of using technology to supercharge how poverty is understood and the risk of reducing donors’ engagement to a knee-jerk emotional response.

Does a slightly sinister guilt-tripping ploy that reduces aid recipients to pitiful victims of bad African governments really have the power to change the world, as some believe? Videos of starving African children may win donations, but rely on a simplistic view of poverty and healthy dose of white-saviour complex to do so. In the past, even traditional (read: less compelling than VR) media, like film and posters, have been very successful at sustaining such stereotypes.

As VR emulates real life so successfully, it is even more capable of shaping people’s worldviews than traditional media and as such there should be concern over how the format is used to raise money.

The complexity of interactive film compared to 2D or print media leaves producers with many more choices to make about what the viewer will be exposed to; and along with this, many more opportunities for pitfalls.

For example, something as seemingly trivial as language will affect the way viewers understand the situation they are being asked to donate money to. Imagine a fundraising campaign for a hospital in North Kivu, DRC not unlike one one trialled by MSF.

As viewers ‘walk’ around the hospital site, which language should they hear? Swahili? French? Efe? If viewers hear a foreign language, they firstly can’t understand what is being said, and secondly are made to feel like outsiders. The people in the film then become subjects. Suffering subjects. Alternatively, if people in the film speak in English, the video ceases to be footage and becomes a performance. Or, if the producers opt for a voiceover, the people in the film are being denied an opportunity to talk and become subjects again.

The point is, there are many subtleties that coax people to interpret videos a certain way. It is important to realise that Virtual Reality is just that- virtual. It’s not real, but a curated version of real events, designed with an audience in mind.

Being such an emotive format, VR makes us more impressionable, which means that oversights, cock-ups or intentions to play on crass stereotypes impress on us much more deeply than when they are represented on a flyer or TV ad.

Some cringe-worthy VR campaigns have already made fantastic examples of how to play on pity, guilt and lazy stereotypes to rake in the green stuff. The Clinton Foundation's "Inside Impact" is a PR masterpiece showcasing the organisations work in East Africa.

The film begins with the viewer sat opposite Bill Clinton in his DC office, whence Bill recounts to the lucky viewer that “every visit to Africa reinforces [his belief] that everyone wants to live in dignity” (cue eye-rolling). Suffice to say that what ensues is essentially 9:21 minutes of Bill Clinton posing with a variety of grateful Africans, Clinton voiceovers of slum footage and an empowering 3 whole seconds during which an (apparently nameless) African woman speaks to the camera- talk about dignity, Bill!

This is a prime example of how forward-thinking technology does not equate to a forward-thinking campaign: the message need not be the of same ilk as the medium- it can actually be far more regressive.

VR is certainly a useful tool for fundraisers struggling to hit targets in a saturated market, but its growing popularity should raise red flags for those combating the prevalence of simplistic pictures of poverty. VR fundraising plays on a plethora of emotions to encourage people to give, yet by showing people powerful images of suffering and then immediately offering them the choice to donate, the matter of giving to international organisations is reduced to a simple moral dichotomy: kindness vs. cruelty, when in real life, things are much more complicated.

Playing on emotions obfuscates the morality of giving and lies in the way of meaningful discussion about what entrenches people in poverty: such as the kind of corruption fronted by The Clinton Foundation and the negative stereotypes used to bolster racist attitudes that lead a 6 year old child to believe her family don't use toilets.

Catherine Tilke is the Editor of Msomi. She can be reached here.



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