UA Little Rock professor joins program to fight the spread of foreign propaganda

Nitin Agarwal. Photo by Lonnie Timmons III/UA Little Rock Communications.

University of Arkansas at Little Rock professor and social media infiltration expert Dr. Nitin Agarwal has been selected as a member of the U.S. State Department’s Tech Demo program to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation. 

Agarwal, Jerry L. Maulden-Entergy Endowed Chair and Distinguished Professor of Information Science, leads COSMOS (Collaboratorium for Social Media and Behavioral Studies) at UA Little Rock.

Agarwal’s team of researchers is one of 14 groups throughout the country that is participating in the program, which is organized by the Global Engagement Center that is charged with leading the U.S. government’s efforts to counter propaganda and disinformation from international terrorist organizations and foreign countries.

During the next six months, those participating in the program will be invited to present their research to U.S. State Department officials, who are expected to visit UA Little Rock in November.

Agarwal and COSMOS researchers will showcase technologies like Blogtrackers and YouTube trackers, one of COSMOS’ latest applications. These applications track information providers and narratives as misinformation is disseminated through social media networks including blogs, YouTube, and Twitter. The research is the result of projects supported by millions of dollars in federal grants.

YouTube trackers demonstrates expansion in COSMOS’ research goals from understanding how people consume media via reading to including viewing-oriented information consumption.

“The younger generations consume information more by viewing than reading, so they are becoming susceptible to disinformation that is prevalent on video-based social media platforms,” he said.

The key to the success of programs like Blogtrackers and YouTube trackers is developing efficient algorithms that can quickly sift through massive amounts of social media data, but also target the right signals, Agarwal said.

“There are often two main motivations for using YouTube,” he said. “One motivation is monetization. People can make a lot of money off of YouTube, so they want their content displayed in as many places as possible. The second motivation is manipulation. There are also malicious or adversarial actors who eventually want to steer your thinking toward a specific agenda. Once you know the intent of the users, we can pick up the right signals to acquire relevant data.”

Algorithmic warfare is becoming an increasingly hot topic as companies like Google, Twitter, and YouTube have realized that the algorithms they use to search and recommend content to their users are susceptible to manipulation by outside forces, Agarwal said. As an example, hackers could target Google’s search algorithms to make a website with false information appear higher in search results, therefore making the website look legitimate.

Agarwal attended the technology series’ kickoff event May 2 at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C. Acting Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Heather Nauert spoke at the event and emphasized the importance of this initiative as a way that the government is working with private industry to stem the spread of false narratives and to authenticate emerging information.

“Foreign propaganda and disinformation clearly is not a new problem,” Nauert said. “However, the same technology that has put an ever-growing crowd-sourced encyclopedia in the hands of anyone with an internet connection, has also put a multimedia storyteller in almost everyone’s pocket. It is not always clear which messages may be sponsored by foreign governments or non-state actors.

In this charged atmosphere, information – or more frequently its weaponized counterpart, disinformation – is emerging as the secret weapon used by our adversaries to tip the scales. We are at a crucial moment when we must define the problem and develop effective solutions consistent with the rule of law and our democratic norms and values. And we need the folks in this room to help us in that endeavor.”

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