August 9, 2017

Mozilla, the nonprofit organization behind the Firefox browser, announced today a new program to combat online misinformation.

The Mozilla Information Trust Initiative is a four-pronged effort concentrating on new products, internet literacy, research and loosely defined “creative interventions.”

Mozilla will not disclose how much funding it has assigned to the initiative as a whole, even as it hopes other organizations will chip in as well.

The end game, according to Katharina Borchert, Mozilla’s Chief Innovation Officer, is a healthier internet (the nonprofit launched its first Internet Health Report in January of this year). Misinformation is a “fundamental threat to the open web,” Borchert said, “because it massively decreases the usefulness of this incredible resource.”

Mozilla hopes it can be a more credible and trusted convener than some of its competitors. Crucially, Borchert says the initiative will be more open and collaborative — in line with past efforts — “than some other organizations.”

For the moment, no new products are being rolled out. The initiative will first study the problem to determine the right indicators to monitor and improve.

“Right now all of us are tweaking products or building new features with light to moderate understanding of the implications,” she said.

Still, Borchert expects that potential products will revolve around “content recommendation and understanding the content ecosystem better.” This approach echoes product changes made by Facebook to show a greater variety of content, but also the growing number of news outlets more clearly tagging different types of content as “Opinion” or “Satire” for immediate recognition.

In the research space, Mozilla will soon be releasing the results of a study conducted on 1,500 U.S. Firefox users in the final months of 2016. With the study still clearing the hurdles of academic publication, not much can be shared yet. But Borchert says the users, who opted into the study, were monitored to assess what new news sources they were using and sharing.

Asked about sharing data with researchers outside of Mozilla, Borchert said that “we would love to have a public data set that academics could work on and do research on,” but “user privacy is one of our primary goals.” Sharing the data in a very anonymized aggregate manner is “less useful,” she added, “but if it is very granular you have all these privacy concerns.”

Still, she points to Common Voice as an example of the kind of big database accessible to the world that Mozilla can help build.

Borchert hopes that a collaborative approach to research on misinformation will help advocates of an open and healthy internet build better countermeasures. While there is a lot of new research on misinformation, this often surfaces conflicting results.

“One day echo chambers are the downfall of the world, the next day they aren’t quite as bad,” Borchert said. (Similar patterns have manifested themselves in research on the backfire effect and the familiarity effect.)

Ultimately, Mozilla hopes to “help the open web to become a more powerful source of credible information,” Borchert said.

She frames this remit as going well beyond news. “If you look at the health information space,” and the extent of misinformation there, she said, “that is almost more terrifying.”

Update: the article was update to clarify that the research would be “released” and not “published” by Mozilla.

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Alexios Mantzarlis joined Poynter to lead the International Fact-Checking Network in September of 2015. In this capacity he writes about and advocates for fact-checking. He…
Alexios Mantzarlis

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