New Grant to Investigate Cyber Flash Mobs

Nitin Agarwal

Thanks to a new grant, Dr. Nitin Agarwal, Jerry L. Maulden-Entergy Endowed Chair Professor of Information Science, is expanding his investigation of cyber flash mobs. The award—Dr. Agarwal’s third in the last six months—is funded by the U.S. Army Research Office (ARO) under the Social and Cognitive Networks program within the Network Sciences division. It provides Dr. Agarwal with $82,338 for the first year of his project “Towards Predictive Modeling Deviant Cyber Flash Mobs: A Socio-Informatics Driven Hypergraph Framework.” Over the next three years, ARO is expected to contribute nearly $300,000 to this research.

Dr. Agarwal’s project will analyze the formation of cyber flash mobs, investigating how and why the gatherings are both possible and effective. A relatively new phenomenon rooted in Internet communities such as Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, cyber flash mobs are defined by Dr. Agarwal as “self-organized groups of individuals who get together at a public place or even Internet (cyber) spaces, perform an unpredicted act, and quickly disperse into anonymity.” Though the activities of these groups can range from dance performances to peaceful protests, a number of groups promote violent, extremist, or otherwise negatively disruptive behavior. The ARO-funded project will focus on the science behind the mob-building tactics of these deviant online groups that may have a physical manifestation.

The central goal of the research is to develop an accurate, practical model for predicting how and if an extremist group will launch a cyber flash mob. To accomplish this, Dr. Agarwal and the graduate student assistants working with him will gather real data on past violent cyber flash mobs. They will then analyze it, pinpointing the common elements in the groups’ strategies. Dr. Agarwal suggests that rhetoric and network ties are critical for flash mob mobilization; by creating a unified identity through their online messages, these groups can heavily influence the thinking and steer the behavior of their audience.

This new project builds on Dr. Agarwal’s already significant body of social media research and behavioral modeling. It is part of a larger research program in his social computing lab, whose efforts are funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, U.S. Office of Naval Research, U.S. Air Force Research Lab, and U.S. Army Research Office. More details on these projects can be found on Dr. Agarwal’s project website.

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