Dr. Nitin Agarwal, director of the Collaboratorium for Social Media and Online Behavioral Studies (COSMOS) at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, has been awarded a $2.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to develop ways to track emerging cyber-social threats and strengthen social cybersecurity research infrastructure.
The funding will support the development of research infrastructure to assess social media and blogs in real time and respond to the growing weaponization of online discourse in influencing peacekeeping, and tactical, operational, and strategic operations. The research infrastructure will include development of models, software applications, and training programs. Military units at all levels will benefit from the intended goals of the project in identification of threats and opportunities within the information environment.
“We appreciate the support from U.S. Sen. John Boozman for the social networking research at UA Little Rock,” Agarwal said. “The senator recognizes the importance of developing new approaches, software tools, and training programs for national security in cyberspace, and this grant was enabled through his support of funding for the Navy’s Social Networks Analysis program.”
Boozman serves as chairman of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies and has a seat on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.
“UA Little Rock continues to be an outstanding partner in the Navy’s efforts to track and counter our adversaries’ use of social media to bring harm to American interests at home and overseas,” Boozman said. “This award will expand capabilities at UA Little Rock and create opportunities for students to develop new skills and expertise in this important area of information science.”
Agarwal’s proposed research infrastructure will enable rapid and appropriate response that can neutralize propaganda and mitigate its negative effects. Social media platforms that are manipulated by adversarial campaigns can shift international and regional opinions about the use of military force or validity of military operations in a region. At the tactical level, social media propaganda could potentially be used to persuade susceptible targets to disrupt or delay military operations through protests or other “non-lethal” resistance.
“The aim of this project is to examine, evaluate, measure, and predict the threat level of the adversarial information campaigns,” Agarwal said.
Agarwal and his team will develop a multi-model approach to analyze adversarial information campaigns conducted online. Their research will identify key actors, groups, narratives, media integration strategies, and tactics deployed by those who disseminate disinformation and conduct influence operations.
The research approach will adopt a blend of computational modeling, big social data, and social science theoretical principles to examine cyber campaigns and assess the threats they pose. More specifically, the effort will bridge big data and social computing research communities to advance big data research infrastructure and security for the modern social and communication space.
COSMOS will develop research-informed solutions to surmount challenges in curating and analyzing social media data characterized by its volume, velocity, and variety. Training exercises will be conducted that will help enhance the U.S. workforce with skills in the challenging and changing domain of big data analytics, data management, machine learning, and artificial intelligence with applications in security.
“We hope to spark innovation and entrepreneurial aspirations in big data and its applications aligning with the knowledge-based economic development mission of the state of Arkansas,” Agarwal said. “This will not only help develop talent within Arkansas but also retain and acquire new talent.”