UALR professor monitors anti-NATO narratives for Operation Brilliant Jump

Dr. Nitin Agarwal's student research team has been studying the social media output regarding NATO Operation Brilliant Jump. Shown, from left to right, are Samer Al-khateeb, Muhammad Nihal Hussain, Mainuddin Shaik, Mohammad Nooman Shiblee, Nitin Agarwal, and Abu Fahad Siddiqui. Photo by Lonnie Timmons III/UALR Communications.

A University of Arkansas at Little Rock professor and his team of student researchers are investigating how groups are using social media to respond to NATO exercises.

Dr. Nitin Agarwal, the UALR Jerry L. Maulden-Entergy endowed chair and a professor of information science, monitored social media responses to Operation Brilliant Jump, a 2,500-person NATO exercise that focused on the logistics of moving troops and heavy equipment from Spain to Poland within four days.

“During the exercise, our role was to examine the social media information environment and identify what type of narratives are being disseminated,” Agarwal said. “More specifically, how are anti-NATO groups reacting to the exercise and the media coverage that NATO public affairs is putting out?”

Brilliant Jump, which ran May 17-27, was the third in a series of four NATO exercises taking place in Poland. The aim of the exercise was to train the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force to deploy quickly to an assigned area of operations following the activation of the NATO Response Force.

Agarwal’s student research team members include Shiblee Nooman and Abu Fahad Siddiqui, who are earning master’s degrees in information quality, as well as Samer Al-khateeb and Muhammad Nihal Hussain, who are earning doctorates in information science. A fifth team member, Mainuddin Shaik, recently graduated with a master’s degree in information quality and will be working at HP in El Paso, Texas.

Agarwal’s team worked in collaboration with other university teams, including Carnegie Mellon and Arizona State, to monitor the social media responses of information disseminated by the NATO public affairs office and by news organizations. The UALR team analyzed blogs via Blogtrackers, a blog analysis tool Agarwal created.

Specifically, Agarwal and his team searched for cyber propaganda campaigns conducted by anti-NATO groups. Cyber propaganda campaigns are deceptive online movements that manifest in physical behaviors and events. These groups  use social media to recruit followers, spread propaganda, and encourage action.

During Brilliant Jump, anti-NATO bloggers used NATO-disseminated images, videos, and information to spread a narrative that NATO was using the training exercise to prepare for war against Russia.

“The idea is to influence the thinking of people into misleading them into thinking that there is an act of aggression against Russia,” Agarwal said. “Misinformation is rampant. It’s everywhere on social media. As information scientists, we should be able to provide ways to measure how truthful or how correct this information is and be able to guide the reader and make them aware of these challenges.”

To help combat the growing threat of cyber campaigns, Agarwal and his graduate students are using social network analysis, cyber forensics, and deep web searches to study cyber campaigns to develop models for detecting and predicting the online behaviors of deviant groups.

“I have found a lot of conventional propaganda techniques being used in modern spaces like Twitter and Instagram,” Hussain said. “This is a type of social engineering being used to coerce people into believing certain things. I am trying to understand and develop models to identify strategies of propaganda in social media and to help people develop counternarratives and countermeasures to defeat a certain narrative or to eliminate propaganda narratives.”

Their research will determine the universal characteristics of cyber campaigns, develop models to identify propaganda strategies used in social media, and help develop countermeasures that can be used to defeat propaganda narratives, Hussain said.

“The next phase of battle will be in cyberspace,” Al-khateeb said. “I think the next type of war will be more of a cyber war than a physical war, where you can influence people’s thinking in an easier way using social media.”

In addition to Brilliant Jump, Agarwal and his team are also monitoring the social media output regarding Exercise Anaconda. Taking place from June 7-17, this operation is a Polish national exercise that seeks to train, exercise, and integrate Polish national command and force structures into an allied, joint, multinational environment.  

The work is funded in part by a $186,692 grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research, titled “Analyzing Integrated Social Media-Facilitated Propaganda Campaigns Using Social Network Analysis and Cyber Forensics,” and a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Army Research Office, titled Towards Predictive Modeling Deviant Cyber Flash Mobs: A Socio-Informatics Driven Hypergraph Framework.”

The grant builds on Agarwal’s already significant body of social media research and behavioral modeling. It is part of a larger research program in his Center Of Social Media and Online behavioral Studies (COSMOS) lab.

More details on these projects can be found on Agarwal’s project website.

In the upper right photo, Dr. Nitin Agarwal’s student research team has been studying the social media output regarding NATO Operation Brilliant Jump. Shown, from left to right, are Samer Al-khateeb, Muhammad Nihal Hussain, Mainuddin Shaik, Mohammad Nooman Shiblee, Nitin Agarwal, and Abu Fahad Siddiqui. Photo by Lonnie Timmons III/UALR Communications. 

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