The newly formed Mozilla Information Trust Initiative (MITI) has announced that it will focus on developing technology products, conduct research, and engage with online communities in an effort to stem the tide of ‘fake news’ across the web.

"Mozilla has a long history of putting community and principles first, and devoting resources to urgent issues - our Firefox browser is just one example," the official press release stated. "Mozilla is committed to building tolerance rather than hate, and building technology that can protect individuals and the web."

© Mozilla
© Mozilla

Speaking to Techworld from her home in California, Katharina Borchert, chief innovation officer at not-for-profit Mozilla admits that there is no silver bullet for this issue, and that an open source approach should be embraced to address the issue.

Fake news is as old as news itself, but technology has massively amplified its reach, coming to head during the controversial 2016 US presidential election.

"It has become clear that massive amounts of misinformation are being amplified, which is detrimental to the web as a whole and it diminishes the returns for people," Borchert said.

Social networks

One of the main culprits here are social networks like Facebook and Twitter, where fake news has found a comfortable home and little has been done to stem the tide of maliciously misleading news being spread through networks.

Since the 2016 election, Twitter has said that it "should not be the arbiter of truth" and that it comes down to the community for "correcting and challenging public discourse", while also vowing to crack down on malicious bots spreading fake news on the platform. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has similarly pledged to tackle the issue, without announcing any concrete solutions.

Borchert agrees somewhat with Twitter's approach, in that it is an almost impossible task to eliminate fake news. What tech companies can do a better job of is surfacing quality content and suppressing brazen propaganda.

"Social networks amplify the content and that is what the election was good for: highlighting this problem," Borchert says. "Everybody now realises the importance of tackling this and the role they have to play. Whether they are doing enough I can't really tell you."

The rise of the fact checkers

Despite the recent legal issues at fact-checking website Snopes, there has been a groundswell of new entrants to the space recently. Namely, the Full Fact project backed by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and billionaire George Soros, and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales' crowd-funded Wikitribune news service.

Google has also expanded its fact-check label across Google News and search results in response to the proliferation of fake news, powered by PolitiFact and Snopes.

Borchert admits that the industry hasn't worked out how to extend this fact checking beyond an audience that already cares about the veracity of facts being spread online.

"It goes way beyond just one industry. The media has a role to play, and this can be an opportunity for media organisations to highlight how they work and focus on quality content," Borchert says. "I'm excited to see so many press checking organisations coming together and the investment in them, as that is one part of the overall puzzle."

She is also aware of the risk of appearing biased. Soros, for example, donated millions of dollars towards Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton in the very presidential election where fake news became an international talking point. Wales on the other hand is a self-professed libertarian.

"We don't want to clearly censor content or say 'this is bad content and we won't show it to you', but there are some objective criteria you can develop over time based on good old-fashioned rules of journalism," Borchert says. "It is important to stay neutral and we don't want to make a political judgement. I want to differentiate and flag websites that put news out there that is not even fact-based."

"We know click through and engagement rates on fake news are lower and amplified by bots. So can we understand from that how users distribute content? I don't know how to deal with that yet, but can we crowdsource that capability? Just because it is a difficult topic doesn't mean we shouldn't take on the challenge."

What is Mozilla doing?

Specifically Mozilla will be focusing on "a web literacy curriculum that addresses misinformation" as well as conducting and funding "original research on how misinformation impacts users' experiences online," according to the official MITI press release.

It will also be fielding and funding pitches from "technologists who are combating misinformation using various mediums, including virtual reality and augmented reality."

Taking a collaborative approach is in the DNA of Mozilla, according to Borchert.

"Running the community-based programmes and organising that engagement is what my team does," she says. "This is not just one project and one innovation challenge with a beginning and an end with one prize pot. This is modular and has no end point, because this problem probably won't go away."