Virtual Reality Can Help Social Justice Movements

In Tech by Kristen Dugan

There is a whole lot of negative in today’s media. Between the polarized political climate, increase in gun violence, and petty crimes that seem to happen every minute, it is not surprising consumers of the media are becoming numb to bad news. Another act of violence, another Facebook war on politics, or another statement of discrimination.

An emerging technology may help foster more empathy to a desensitized population. Virtual reality, referred to as VR, allows people to be fully immersed in what they are viewing in a digital atmosphere. A user puts on a headset and can instantly be transported to a new environment while never leaving their couch. Social networks are investing in VR with the hope virtual reality will be just as accessible to the public as other social applications.


In 2014, Facebook announced its plan to purchase a virtual reality company called Oculus VR, Inc. for $2 billion. In a keynote address, Mark Zuckerberg demonstrates how complex and realistic VR can be.

While VR can clearly help people do cool things like view what it’s like to be on Mars or check on your dog from your office, it also has the ability to powerfully impact social justice issues.

The key to using VR for positive social change is igniting empathy to an audience who is desensitized to bad news.

In a Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab, researchers created an environment with corroded coral reefs to demonstrate why people need to take better care of the environment, understand climate change, and decrease the carbon emissions that are harming the ocean. By seeing the futuristic effects of climate change in an up-close and personal way, the people who experienced this virtual reality were more likely to empathize with the situation because of the immersive educational experience.

Many projects with a similar nature are being created all over the United States. The same Stanford lab simulated homelessness to show people the extent to this pressing issue in the United States. People who partook in the experience found out they lost their job, that they needed to sell their belongings to makes ends meet, and then had to live out of a car. Participants felt the true affect of being homeless. If a person were to know what it was like to sleep on the street, to beg for food, or to fiercely protect a backpack on a crowded bus, they would better empathize with a population that can be hard to identify with as an affluent citizen.

An imperative of public interest communications is strategic empathy. Organizations that strive to intersect their mission with the interests of their audience can now show people why they should invest in their social justice cause by giving them first hand experiences with the public they are aiming to help. Virtual reality is extending beyond video games and conference calls to a cause that can help our population find their inspiration to fight for others, because now, they really can walk in their shoes.

About the Author

Kristen Dugan

Kristen Dugan is a public relations student at the University of Florida. She is interested in international communications and working abroad in the PR field.