From terrorist propaganda to political activism, many diverse causes and voices now use social media as their major public platform. As a result, the way in which groups release, spread, and popularize information online is becoming more and more culturally significant.
Dr. Nitin Agarwal, University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR) Jerry L. Maulden-Entergy chair and professor of information science, has been awarded a grant in collaboration with Intelligent Automation, Inc. (IAI) to support his research into this subject.
The U.S. Department of the Navy's Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program will fund the grant. IAI will lead the first phase of the project, with UALR receiving $24,776 to support its portion of the research.
The project, entitled "A Socio-Computational Model for 'Social Bot' Detection," will explore the behavioral, social, and computational factors that cause a post, message, or story to "go viral," particularly when the theme or originator is deviant in some way.
Dr. Agarwal will work with scientists at the U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR), NATO Joint Forces Command (JFCBS), and NATO Strategic Communication's Center of Excellence (STRATCOM-COE) to understand tactical and strategic information maneuvers used on social media to advance cyber operations. These cyber operations are regularly deployed around the world to exploit local grievances, steer mass thinking, polarize communities, and mobilize crowds.
In the Ukraine-Russia crisis, for example, sites like ВКонтакте (VKontakte -- a Russian social media platform), LiveJournal, and other blogging platforms have been used as propaganda machines to justify the Russian government's policies and actions.
Similarly, the terrorist organization ISIS (or ISIL) uses social media outlets, like Twitter, and various websites for raising funds, recruiting, and spreading extremist propaganda. While promotional use of these sites by organizations is common, the methods used by ISIS -- and other groups like them -- are unique. They use bots -- virtual, automated posters -- enormous, paid "armies" of human posters or trolls, and hacking schemes to overwhelmingly infiltrate the public platform with their message.
Investigating how and why deviant groups and organizations are able to digitally disseminate their propaganda in rapid order enriches both sociology and information science disciplines, particularly those interested in Internet security. Dr. Agarwal's research will offer considerable insight into public and private social media use while also providing an in-depth understanding of the major propagators of viral, insidious content and the methods that make them successful.
Research in socio-technical behavior is young but vital, and Dr. Agarwal and his team's findings could contribute significantly to the theories and innovations of the field. The recently funded project is part of a larger research program Dr. Agarwal's lab is working on, funded by the National Science Foundation, Office of Naval Research, Air Force Research Lab, and Army Research Office. More details on these projects can be found at http://www.ualr.edu/nxagarwal/Homepage/Projects.html.
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