Nitin Agarwal: Flattening the Misinformation Curve — the internet, the virus and digital forensics

Dr. Nitin Agarwal

Americans may not remember where they were the first time they heard “flattening the curve,” but they’ll forever remember the reason — COVID-19. There’s an information curve that follows this epidemiological one like a shadow. It’s less predictable, but treatable, and University of Arkansas Little Rock Prof. Nitin Agarwal and his students are experts.

Agarwal, the Jerry L. Maulden-Entergy endowed chair and a professor of information science at the university, has partnered with the Office of the Arkansas Attorney General. He and his team of about 30 students — from undergraduates to postdocs — are charged with identifying and tracking coronavirus-related scam websites and social media disinformation that’s spreading alongside the pandemic.

“There’s factual information and nonfactual information, but when it comes to misinformation, sometimes what is presented is half true, or half facts,” Agarwal said.

One well-traveled theory is that cellular 5G wireless technology is spreading coronavirus, Agarwal says. This is completely untrue. Another theory is that the United States grew the virus and unleashed it in China in order to sink that country’s economy and destabilize society.

There is no evidence the U.S. grew the virus and considerable evidence shows the coronavirus evolved naturally in a native Chinese animal population, but “coronavirus has stopped China’s economy and society. That is true.”

The most viral misinformation puts pieces of truth together to present a distorted picture. It’s more nimble than a falsehood, and it’s why Agarwal says there’s a health pandemic and a concurrent misinfodemic. This is what he and his students at the Collaboratorium for Social Media and Online Behavioral Studies (COSMOS) continue to monitor and quantify throughout the crisis.

Agarwal founded COSMOS at UA Little Rock several years ago to study information online and identify emerging threats. Since then, COSMOS has followed and analyzed responses to autism awareness campaigns, information around the Islamic State, Singapore elections and anti-NATO propaganda from Russian state-sponsored agencies.

“We are able to take our analysis and findings and share it with NATO, with their StratComm teams, to tailor their messages so that they are targeting those campaigns,” he said.

From the campus of UA Little Rock, Agarwal says he enjoys the freedom to pursue misinfodemics — and the truly elite math and science students he needs to drive his unique enterprise — halfway around the globe.

“I pick up students from various parts of the world,” he said. “They’re carefully selected after several rounds of exercises, reviews — this has helped create word-of-mouth, so now when I get students, I’m getting students who wish to study at COSMOS. It’s great satisfaction to see them grow. That, and the flexibility to expand research, has been my strongest reasons to stay in Arkansas.”

Together, Agarwal and his proteges have produced troves of research for and funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), U.S. Army Research Office (ARO), U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR), U.S. Air Force Research Lab (AFRL), and U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Now they have developed a website that can help people identify, understand, and report misinformation, fake websites, and scams regarding COVID-19, which is published at http://cosmos.ualr.edu/covid-19.

“Scammers are working overtime to exploit coronavirus fears,” said U.S. Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.). “We are grateful for the ongoing efforts in Arkansas by Dr. Agarwal and his team at UA Little Rock helping identify the schemes thieves employ so we can stop these fraudulent activities, hold offenders accountable and prevent Arkansans from being fooled by bogus claims.”

COSMOS has perfected data analysis and methodology to sweep blog trackers and YouTube videos to identify the bad actors who want to spread misinformation or steal consumers’ money or identity. The collaboratorium is asking anyone to submit examples of misinformation they’ve come across, including commercial operations, and it’s working toward a scalable platform to equip businesses and organizations to detect misinformation on their own.

“During this phase of the pandemic where fear is peaking, it is extremely important to stop bad actors that are using the internet to offer misinformation, sell fake tests, cures or solicit contributions to fake COVID charities,” said Attorney General Rutledge.

COSMOS hopes to bring credit, and university credits, to bear as well.

“For any academic institution, but especially here at UA Little Rock, students are the heart and soul of the research,” Agarwal said. “I have 30 students and postdocs. Whenever we have a project, the students drive the research, and students can see its impact, not just in a publication. This research affects our daily lives. Our work goes out into the world.”

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