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UA Little Rock receives grant to research covert online information campaigns

Dr. Nitin Agarwal, founding director of the Collaboratorium for Social Media and Online Behavioral Studies, will serve as principal investigator for UA Little Rock.
Lonnie Timmons III
UA Little Rock
Dr. Nitin Agarwal, founding director of the Collaboratorium for Social Media and Online Behavioral Studies, will serve as principal investigator for UA Little Rock.

The University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Collaboratorium for Social Media and Online Behavioral Studies (COSMOS) has received a multi-year grant from a Department of Defense (DoD) initiative to study covert online information campaigns in the Indo-Pacific region, the school said.

The school will partner with Carnegie Mellon University, University of Regina, and The Atlantic Council on the five-year project, “Multi-Level Models of Covert Online Information Campaigns.”

Total funding for the project, which is headed by Dr. Kathleen Carley of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), is about $5 million.

Dr. Nitin Agarwal, Jerry L. Maulden-Entergy endowed chair, distinguished professor of information science, and the founding director of COSMOS, will serve as principal investigator for UA Little Rock, which will receive $456,657 to study online information campaigns during elections, protests, and other major events in the Indo-Pacific region.

Influence campaigns are becoming more sophisticated as they are often well orchestrated, spread across multiple social media platforms, and conducted by humans, bots, and cyborg-like actors in a flash-mob style coordination manner. Agarwal defines influence campaigns as information designed and shared to sway public opinion or manipulate people’s beliefs and behaviors.

“Advanced tactics and maneuvers are used to amplify the messages,” Agarwal said. “For instance, narratives are framed in blogs and YouTube videos, which are then shared on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and other such platforms. Links to blog posts and YouTube videos are massively amplified using bots, which drive traffic to respective blog posts or YouTube videos. Traffic amplification further leads to the content being recommended more, which creates a feeding frenzy. Such a tactic is known as algorithmic manipulation.”

In this research project, COSMOS is studying similar tactics deployed in online covert influence campaigns concentrated on the Indo-Pacific region. COSMOS will use its programs, VTracker and BTracker, to collect information from YouTube and blogs. The data will be used to track a video or a blog post’s dissemination across multiple media platforms and their influence.

Some of the narratives that COSMOS researchers are tracking online include:

  • Efforts to increase Chinese social, economic, political, and cultural hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region;
  • Efforts to undermine U.S. leadership in the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific region;
  • U.S. military efforts in the Indo-Pacific region is meant to create a war with China and Russia;
  • Countries in Southeast Asia must rise with China to find alternatives against America’s primacy in Asia; and
  • The Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, are secretly U.S. proxies or Saudi-backed ISIS militants.

“This will help in identifying key actors, key groups, coordination strategies, and tactics indicating coordinated content engagement boosting, such as ‘spiked’ views, likes, commenter mobs, etc.,” Agarwal said. “Aside from the social network theory-based analysis, we will study the content captured from YouTube, blogs, Reddit, and other social media platforms to assess inflammatory speech and text that evoke certain emotions using tonality/toxicity assessment.”
Since 2009, COSMOS has received more than $15 million in funding from the DoD to conduct research.

This story comes from the staff of Talk Business & Politics, a content partner with KUAR News. You can hear the weekly program on Mondays at 6:06 p.m.