UALR researchers present findings at NATO conference

Dr. Nitin Agarwal (left) and his doctoral students, Nihal Hussain and Samer Al-Khateeb. Photo by Lonnie Timmons III/UALR Communications.

A University of Arkansas at Little Rock professor and two doctoral students recently got a chance to unveil their research on cyber defense at an international NATO conference. 

Dr. Nitin Agarwal, the UALR Jerry L. Maulden-Entergy endowed chair and a professor of information science, and his doctoral students, Samer Al-Khateeb and Nihal Hussain, presented their research at the NATO Technology for Information, Decision, and Execution (TIDE) Sprint Conference Oct. 26 in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

The conference serves as an initiative to achieve and maintain technology, information, and decision making in support of NATO’s command and control development efforts.

The talk, “Understanding Influence Operations of Novorossiya through Blogs and Twitter,” detailed the research team’s monitoring of social media responses to NATO exercises Operation Brilliant Jump and Anakonda over the summer. Specifically, they tracked how anti-NATO groups reacted to information released by NATO and media coverage of the exercises via social media.

“We documented and described various case studies pertaining to the Novorossiya context, especially the anti-NATO narrative propagated by the pro-Russian media outlets,” Agarwal said.

It’s important to monitor misinformation spread through social media, since deviant groups can coordinate cyber campaigns to influence thinking and media coverage of events, Agarwal said.

“In today’s information technology age, our thinking and behaviors are highly influenced by what we see on our smartphone screens,” Agarwal said. “Misinformation is rampant. Complemented with the availability of inexpensive and ubiquitous mass communication tools, such as social media, conducting deviant acts becomes both convenient and effective.”

The researchers used social network analysis and cyber forensics to develop tools and methodologies to find hidden relations between different groups and track deviant groups across social media websites, Al-Khateeb said.

For instance, their research can identify the influential people in a social network who are most responsible for spreading false information in a cyber campaign. They can also track how this information is spread from one social network to another. For example, narratives can be framed on blogs and YouTube videos and then that information can be disseminated through Twitter and Reddit.

Blogs provide a rich medium for presenting a story with half-truths and misinformation, which are then disseminated using Twitter or Facebook. Identifying these cross-media affiliations is important to build a complete picture,” Hussain said.

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

More information about the researchers:

Agarwal is the Jerry L. Maulden-Entergy Chair Professor of Information Science at University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He is the director of Center of Social Media and Online Behavioral Studies. His research interests include social computing, data mining, privacy, social-cyber security, and health informatics. He has published widely in top-tier forums with several best paper awards. His research is supported by grants from the U.S. NSF, ONR, AFRL, and ARO. Agarwal obtained his Ph.D. from Arizona State University with outstanding dissertation recognition in 2009. He was awarded Top 20 in 20s by Arkansas Business Magazine in 2012. UALR awarded Agarwal the 2015 Faculty Excellence Award for Research and Creative Endeavors. 

Al-Khateeb is pursuing his doctorate in computer and information sciences. His research includes deviant behavioral modeling, deviant cyber flash mobs, cyber propaganda campaigns, social cyber forensics, social computing, data mining in social media, and collective action. He received a bachelor’s degree in computer science and a master’s degree in applied science from UALR and is a recipient of the outstanding master’s student award from the College of Arts, Letters, and Sciences.

Hussain is pursuing his doctorate in integrated computing at UALR. He earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Osmania University. He also works as a research assistant in the information science department, and his research interests include text mining and unstructured data mining.

In the upper right photo, Dr. Nitin Agarwal (left) and his doctoral students, Nihal Hussain and Samer Al-Khateeb, presented their research at the NATO Technology for Information, Decision, and Execution (TIDE) Sprint Conference Oct. 26 in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Photo by Lonnie Timmons III/UALR Communications.

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