UA Little Rock Fights Social Media Misinformation

UA Little Rock Fights Social Media Misinformation
Assistant professor Philip Huff and managing director Sandra Leiterman of UA Little Rock's cybersecurity program. (Ben Krain)

“It’s true. I read it on the Internet,” has become something of a comical shorthand describing people’s vulnerability to online misinformation.

While savvier browsers know how to verify and fact-check the things they read, hear, see and watch, many people remain susceptible to the spread of false information online. Whether willingly giving in to confirmation bias or falling prey to cleverly disguised untruths, people can be seduced into accepting falsehoods and, more dangerously, making decisions or taking action based on what they think they’ve learned.

Devising the tools, methods and policies for promoting good behaviors on the web while marginalizing the bad actors is a serious challenge facing Arkansas, the nation and the international community.

For quite some time the UA Little Rock Collaboratorium for Social Media and Online Behavioral Studies (COSMOS) has been pioneering social computing and web analytics. In the past 10 years Dr. Nitin Agarwal and his COSMOS Research Team have earned international recognition as they have produced projects, tools and publications while receiving more than $10 million in funding from sponsors like the U.S. National Science Research Foundation (NSF), U.S. Army Research Office (ARO), the U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR), the U.S. Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) and the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

“He’s very much a known quantity in the national security space,” said Joni Lee, vice chancellor for university affairs, of Agarwal and his work.

Among other things, COSMOS has helped the Arkansas Attorney General’s Office track COVID-related scams to protect consumers and will no doubt play a role in fighting the misinformation that is sure to come with the COVID vaccine distribution.

“His area and his center are going to be premier research for quite a while,” Lee said.

COSMOS has produced more than two dozen projects, more than 200 publications and three important tools: Blogtrackers, YouTubeTracker and Focal Structure Analysis.

COSMOS has also developed more than 50 researchers, who have gone on to become academic and industry leaders at Amazon, LinkedIn, Cisco, HP, Walmart, Dillard’s, Acxiom, Windstream and other companies.

Additionally, Agarwal plays a strategic role in establishing the partnership between the Department of Homeland Security’s Center of Excellence on Crime Investigation and Network Analysis and COSMOS at UA Little Rock.

COSMOS builds upon the success of the COSMOS Research Lab. The mission of the center is to:

  • Conduct collaborative industry-university research (new tools, methods, proof of concepts, use cases and projects).
  • Promote and disseminate training/education in social computing and web analytics.
  • Develop and establish research partnerships, alliances, standards and policies.
  • Accelerate industry adoption and incubate commercialization opportunities.
  • Work with U.S. Government Agencies to protect the nation and its democratic processes from social media threats like cyber propaganda campaigns, cyber-extremism and cyber-warfare.

The Collaboratorium for Social Media and Online Behavioral Studies is designed to be inclusive – students from all levels (undergraduates, master's and doctoral) and faculty from all disciplines and institutions who have an interest in social computing and web analytics research, training and industry applications are welcome to participate in ongoing projects and in developing new projects.

Cybersecurity Degree

In a closely related subject, UA Little Rock is now offering a Bachelor of Science in Cybersecurity. The 121-credit program expands the Information Assurance program to provide students with the more complete background in cybersecurity necessary to meet workforce needs immediately upon graduation.

The program includes courses in network security, digital forensics, applied cryptography, data security, risk management and human behavior and privacy.

For more than a decade, UA Little Rock has been a leader in cybersecurity and information assurance and is a designated National Security Agency Center of Academic Excellence. The university is a founding partner of the American Cyber Alliance and regularly assists with their cybersecurity apprenticeship and training programs.

Average salaries of Arkansas graduates in this field range from $42,300-$109,900.

The cybersecurity faculty partners with regional industry, government (including the Arkansas Department of Education) and military to foster cybersecurity workforce development and career opportunities in the state. With more than 300,000 open positions nationwide in cybersecurity today and 1.8 million expected by 2022, UA Little Rock will prepare the next generation of cybersecurity professionals.

“That’s an area we all know is going to really explode and just be more important,” Lee said.

The UA Little Rock Department of Computer Science is also working on a proposal for a Bachelor of Arts (BA) Cybersecurity that will be entirely online.