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The Russian connectionFake news: Studying cyber propaganda and false information campaigns

Published 15 June 2017

Dr. Nitin Agarwal of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock will use $1.5 million grant from the Office of Naval Research to study the sources of false information on the Internet, how it is spread through social media, and how people and groups strategically use this false information to conduct cyber propaganda campaigns.

A University of Arkansas at Little Rock professor has received more than $1.5 million to research ways to aid U.S. military forces in the fight against cyber propaganda campaigns. 

The Office of Naval Research awarded Dr. Nitin Agarwal, the UA Little Rock Jerry L. Maulden-Entergy endowed chair and a professor of information science, a $1,530,778 grant. This new grant enables Agarwal to continue his investigation into the practices, tactics, and motivations of organizers of web-based mass movements and their participants.

UALR notes that in his research, Agarwal will use cyber forensics and deep web search-based methodologies to study the sources of false information on the Internet, how it is spread through social media, and how people and groups strategically use this false information to conduct cyber propaganda campaigns.

Combined with research from previous studies, Agarwal will develop models that can identify key individuals and groups responsible for conducting cyber campaigns and spreading propaganda.

“The developed models will help assess the state of the discontent and unrest among the people and design risk-averse strategies to enhance human security for NATO forces, U.S. forces, citizens, and international aid workers,” Agarwal said.

Understanding how social media is used to advocate a specific agenda is critical to understanding how information is spread in unstable environments like warzones, Agarwal said.

“Currently, we are in the infancy of where participatory media and technology merge – a lawless Wild West of social media,” he said. “Therefore, it is important to examine strategic and tactical information maneuvers in social media to fundamentally understand cyber propaganda campaigns.”

Social media channels have become modern-day “virtual town halls” where participants share information that shapes political discourse. While social media networks have endowed citizens with the power to freely express their opinions, they have also become a powerful tool to disseminate weaponized narratives.

“At a time when people like to get their news from social media rather than mainstream media, irresponsible citizen journalism poses a threat to democratic principles and institutions by misrepresenting facts and information,” Agarwal said.

Discussions on social media channels can often spill over to mainstream media, which helps legitimize false information.

“Several journalistic accounts have shown that social media and the deep web channels are strategically used to distribute misinformation, fake news, or coordinate cyber propaganda campaigns,” Agarwal said.

YouTube, for example, is often used to target teenagers and young people, subjecting them to conspiracy theories, disinformation campaigns, and radical ideologies.

The effects of these cyber campaigns have been seen all over the world, with major transnational crime organizations utilizing social media to recruit, influence, and encourage action. Their tactics are complex and diverse, ranging from publishing fake pictures to hiring armies of “trolls” to spread propaganda on blogs and social media.

Agarwal’s research, “Developing Novel Socio-Computational Methodologies to Analyze Multimedia-based Cyber Propaganda Campaigns,” begins this month and will wrap up in January 2019.