UA Little Rock Professor Shows Ways of Fighting Propaganda

UA Little Rock Professor Shows Ways of Fighting Propaganda
Nitin Agarwal

On May 2, UA Little Rock professor Nitin Agarwal attended the kickoff of the U.S. State Department’s Tech Demo program to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation.

The Global Engagement Center organized the six-month program, and Agarwal’s team is one of 14 from across the nation participating in it.

The teams will be invited, on a rotating biweekly basis, to present their research to officials. They can choose to travel to the State Department in Washington or officials will come to them.

Agarwal’s team will demonstrate technologies that include Blogtrackers and YouTube trackers. Their technologies are used to track information providers, narratives and sentiments as misinformation is disseminated on online social networks (blogs, YouTube, Twitter, etc.), he said.

The research to be presented is the result of dozens of projects supported by millions in federal grants that Agarwal’s research group, Collaboratorium for Social Media & Online Behavioral Studies (COSMOS), is working on.

COSMOS has developed algorithms that benefit Blogtrackers and YouTube trackers by sifting through social data and filtering out the noise, for one. “One approach is to grab everything, collect all data, but that’s not the efficient approach. You end up with a drinking-from-a-fire-hose problem here; it’s too much,” Agarwal said. “The other approach is grabbing the right data, but that’s a chicken-and-egg problem. … So we are developing efficient and scalable algorithms to filter out the noise upfront so that we can pick up the right signals from the social data.”

The algorithms can assess the influence of bloggers, tweeters, YouTubers and other social media users. They identify bots and their coordination to detect and prevent spam content or misinformation and disinformation, he said.

COSMOS has also been looking at how people are moving from reading-oriented consumption to viewing-oriented consumption. The researchers received $1.5 million from the Office of Naval Research last year to study this shift and how it has affected the way propaganda and disinformation campaigns are run on platforms like YouTube and then propagated to other sites, like Twitter.

Agarwal added, “The broad picture here is we are stepping into an era of algorithm-based warfare” and fighting back in a world where bots are being used to artificially make content trend or get content to show up first in Google search results.