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Grant to go toward UA Little Rock study of online disinformation campaigns

UA Little Rock
UA Little Rock professor Nitin Agarwal has received a grant to go toward studying online misinformation campaigns.

UA Little Rock will see an increase in funding for its Collaboratorium for Social Media and Online Behavioral Studies (COSMOS) research center, which focuses on misinformation campaigns on social media. Nitin Agarwal, a professor of information science and director of the center, has received a $165,540 grant from the Department of Defense to expand his research.

Agarwal says the grant will be used to upgrade the computer equipment at COSMOS. He says a higher density computational environment will help scale up research for the center’s social media monitoring tool, which will help research misinformation campaigns that are conducted through video since most research focuses on text-based sites.

“The rapid growth in popularity of video-based platforms and the rampant disinformation campaigns on such multimedia platforms pose scalability challenges for researchers that this grant will address,” Agarwal said in an interview.

Agarwal says it's important to study misinformation campaigns on social media sites, because they can spill into mainstream news channels, allowing for conspiracy theories to gain legitimacy.

“There is a need for more systematic and comprehensive research that looks at video-based platforms like YouTube and TikTok,” Agarwal said. “For example, in Ukraine currently there are lots of TikTok campaigns trying to influence a local population. They are trying to project a positive image of some groups and a negative one of other groups.”

It is a challenge for social media sites to handle misinformation campaigns, because they are limited to suspending one account at a time, Agarwal explained. He says social media sites aren’t able to handle that on their own.

“It largely rests upon researchers and policy makers to take viable practical actions to protect free speech, as well as making sure that trust in democracy and scientific institutions is retained, and not undermined by such campaigns,” Agarwal said.

According to a press release, UA Little Rock is one of 81 institutions to receive a grant from Defense University Research Instrumentation Program, which is part of the Department of Defense.

“The awards will sustain the scientific excellence of our universities, train the next generation of STEM workforce, and facilitate scientific advances that will drive unparalleled military capabilities for our country,” said Bindu Nair, Director, Basic Research Office, Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering.