Dr. Nitin Agarwal, founding director of the Collaboration for Social Media and Online Behavioral Studies (COSMOS) Research Center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, has received $5 million from the Army Research Office to evaluate and defend against emerging cognitive threats.
The Army Research Office is a directorate of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Army Research Laboratory.
The project, set to run through 2025, aims to identify research gaps in deviant socio-technical behaviors, shape an agenda focused on developing strategies that can counter emerging threats, and create tools for near real-time analysis of such threats.
“Narratives on social media could be easily weaponized and propagated at frighteningly fast speeds,” Agarwal said. “Such insidious threats that attempt to influence beliefs and behaviors need to be considered as modern weapons of cognitive hijacking. We need to develop scientific approaches to combat these emerging threats in a global context, equip our warfighters with these capabilities, and strengthen community resiliency.”
Agarwal says these threats are increasingly flash mob-type events, where groups self-organize and coordinate in cyberspace, then disperse. Coordinated cognitive attacks can cause stock market frenzy, violent protests, and highly coordinated cyberattacks on public infrastructure. To an outsider such acts may look arbitrary, however intense coordination happens in the background.
“Given the evolving technological landscape and increasing complexity of cognitive attacks, research is warranted to develop multidisciplinary and theoretically grounded capabilities to evaluate emerging socio-cognitive threats that can serve the needs of our military at strategic, tactical, and operational levels,” Agarwal said.
When narratives rapidly evolve in an unchecked online environment, the results can be dangerous. State and non-state actors can use social media platforms to amplify certain narratives and sway public opinion in their favor.
Some of Agarwal’s previous research has shown how YouTube’s algorithms can be manipulated to promote positive content about China while crushing negative news like human rights violations against Uyghur minorities in western China, or how the terrorist organization, Islamic State, uses bots to recruit members and for propaganda campaigns.
“There are many popular shows about the use of forensics to solve physical crimes. Somewhat similarly, Dr. Agarwal uses social cyber forensics to determine the sources of scams and influence campaigns, some of which threaten our country and its allies,” said Dr. Lawrence Whitman, dean of the Donaghey College of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. “He works closely with the Army to apply the methods and tools his team has developed to make us all safer. It’s great to have Dr. Agarwal working on these threats, and we are grateful to have this partnership with the Army Research Office.”
Agarwal’s research team investigates governments, groups, and individuals who use advanced communication tactics to orchestrate sophisticated cognitive attack campaigns through a variety of existing and emerging social media platforms, particularly multimedia-rich platforms.
U.S. defense groups are interested in the work because it helps to identify how adversaries are promoting certain narratives via social media, how such narratives resonate with the target audience, and how those narratives can be combated. Training exercises will be conducted to enhance the U.S. workforce with skills in big data analytics, data management, machine learning, and artificial intelligence with applications in security.
The award will provide support for high-speed computational servers that are necessary to support the processing of large volumes of multimodality data, which includes text, image, video, audio, reach, engagement, metadata, and interactions. It is also expected to fund around 15 student research positions, several postdoctoral research fellowships, and data engineer positions.