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UA Little Rock Receives DoD Grant to Research Covert Online Information Campaigns

The University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Collaboratorium for Social Media and Online Behavioral Studies (COSMOS) has received a multi-year grant from a Department of Defense (DoD) initiative to study covert online information campaigns in the Indo-Pacific region.

UA Little Rock is partnering on the five-year project, “Multi-Level Models of Covert Online Information Campaigns,” with Carnegie Mellon University, University of Regina, and The Atlantic Council. Total funding for the project, which is headed by Dr. Kathleen Carley of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), is about $5 million.

Dr. Nitin Agarwal, Jerry L. Maulden-Entergy endowed chair, distinguished professor of information science, and the founding director of COSMOS, will serve as principal investigator for UA Little Rock, which will receive $456,657 to study online information campaigns during elections, protests, and other major events in the Indo-Pacific region.

Influence campaigns are becoming more sophisticated as they are often well orchestrated, spread across multiple social media platforms, and conducted by humans, bots, and cyborg-like actors in a flash-mob style coordination manner. Agarwal defines influence campaigns as information designed and shared to sway public opinion or manipulate people’s beliefs and behaviors.

“Advanced tactics and maneuvers are used to amplify the messages,” Agarwal said. “For instance, narratives are framed in blogs and YouTube videos, which are then shared on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and other such platforms. Links to blog posts and YouTube videos are massively amplified using bots, which drive traffic to respective blog posts or YouTube videos. Traffic amplification further leads to the content being recommended more, which creates a feeding frenzy. Such a tactic is known as algorithmic manipulation.”

In this project, COSMOS is studying similar tactics deployed in online covert influence campaigns concentrated on the Indo-Pacific region. COSMOS will use its programs, VTracker and BTracker, to collect information from YouTube and blogs. The data will be used to track a video or a blog post’s dissemination across multiple media platforms and their influence.

Some of the narratives that COSMOS researchers are tracking online include:

  • Efforts to increase Chinese social, economic, political, and cultural hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region
  • Efforts to undermine U.S. leadership in the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific region
  • U.S. military efforts in the Indo-Pacific region is meant to create a war with China and Russia
  • Countries in Southeast Asia must rise with China to find alternatives against America’s primacy in Asia.
  • The Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, are secretly U.S. proxies or Saudi-backed ISIS militants

COSMOS researchers will use a collective action theory-based model, social network theories, and social influence theory to lay the groundwork for detecting coordination and measuring the power of the online influence campaigns.

“This will help in identifying key actors, key groups, coordination strategies, and tactics indicating coordinated content engagement boosting, such as ‘spiked’ views, likes, commenter mobs, etc.,” Agarwal said. “Aside from the social network theory-based analysis, we will study the content captured from YouTube, blogs, Reddit, and other social media platforms to assess inflammatory speech and text that evoke certain emotions using tonality/toxicity assessment.”

Coordination behaviors and tactics detected from these social media platforms will be mapped to a framework developed by Dr. Carley at CMU. This will help in characterization of such tactics in covert online influence campaigns and enable further experimentation with countermeasures.

“Such a comparison would help develop a characterization of information maneuvers and media platforms, which maneuvers are more prevalent on a particular social media platform, or which platforms are more suited for a particular information maneuver,” Agarwal said.

The grant is managed by the Office of Naval Research and awarded under the DoD’s Minerva Research Initiative. Minerva supports basic research that focuses on topics of particular relevance to U.S. national security. Through its network of faculty investigators, Minerva also strengthens the department’s connections with the social science community and helps DOD better understand and prepare for future challenges, including National Defense Strategy priorities such as great power competition.

The Minerva Research Initiative is jointly administered by the Basic Research Office and the Strategy and Force Development Office in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy in partnership with the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the Office of Naval Research.

UA Little Rock’s COSMOS is also partnering with Arizona State University and Nanyang Technological University on another DoD Minerva Research Initiative grant, “Fusing Narrative and Social Cyber Forensics to Understand Covert Influence.” COSMOS is conducting social network and cyber forensic analysis to examine online activity and the dissemination of ideas and elements of these narratives. Since 2009, COSMOS has received more than $15 million in funding from the DoD to conduct research.

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Office of Naval Research.