University of Arkansas at Little Rock Prof. Nitin Agarwal and his team have received $230,000 from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop methodologies for detecting social media bots that automatically generate messages intended to persuade social media users on particular issues, ideas and campaigns.
While the issue of social media bots was brought to the forefront of consciousness for Americans because of the use of bots linked to Russia during 2016 election campaigns in Europe and the U.S., Agarwal said the issue of bots disseminating propaganda is one that his team has been looking at for close to a decade.
“The elections brought this issue into the limelight, but we’ve been studying this back to 2008 and 2009, when social media was just getting started,” said Agarwal, who holds the Jerry L. Maulden-Entergy Endowed Chair of Information Science.
The purpose of the bots often appears to be to divide a nation’s citizens, he said. They often identify a divisive geopolitical issue — Agarwal has seen it done with issues from climate change to the recent controversy over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem — and then launch campaigns supporting both sides of the debate.
“It is divisive rhetoric meant to unravel the fabric of society and democracy,” Agarwal said. “Military experts call it the newest form of information warfare.”
His team also has received support from other facets of the U.S. Department of Defense, including the U.S. Office of Naval Research and the U.S. Army Research Office. In all, the research has garnered about $11.8 million in grant funding during the last two years, according to a page on the UA Little Rock website.
Within the DARPA project, the team will use computational social network analysis to study the behavior of bots and identify strategies used to coordinate and disseminate information through them, in an effort to create a model for identifying bots and devising a strategy for counter measures, Agarwal said.
The goal is to create a usable tool that will diffuse the campaigns and interrupt the bot and troll networks, A
garwal said. He is working with the Maryland-based company Intelligent Automation, which specializes in research and development for corporations and U.S. federal agencies.
During the next phase of the project, the team also will look at the content disseminated by social bots and explore their effect on public discourse, according to a press release from UA Little Rock.
“The larger goal of this research is to create ways where we can educate society on media literacy and how to assess resources,” he said. And, collectively with other institutions, Agarwal hopes to make policy recommendations on the federal level in terms of strategies for fighting against the cyberwarfare tactics.
His team at UA Little Rock includes 20 students, Ph.D. and graduate students, in addition to a few post-doctorate students supporting effort, he said.
Agarwal joined the university in 2009 as an assistant professor, was promoted to associate professor in 2013 and given the Maulden-Entergy Chair in 2015.
He earned his Ph.D. in computer science from Arizona State University in 2009.
He holds a bachelor’s degree in information technology from the Indian Institute of Information Technology.