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UALR Professor Nitin Agarwal Fights Terrorists

3 min read

“Deviant groups” like ISIS are using social media to raise funds and reach by inexpensive means the individuals who are willing to commit heinous acts in their name.

Quoting President Barack Obama, a Forbes article titled “Terrorist Use of U.S. Social Media Is a National Security Threat” makes the point that “social media and the internet is the primary way in which these terrorism organizations are communicating.”

Their propaganda is also being disseminated more quickly than would have been possible with traditional methods, according to Nitin Agarwal, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Jerry L. Maulden-Entergy endowed chair and a professor of information science.

He said social media had “flattened the world” and “sped up” delivery of anti-Western and anti-NATO groups’ messages.

Agarwal recently received a $186,692 grant — his fourth major grant for this academic year — from the U.S. Office of Naval Research to help defense analysts fight back in a more proactive way.

The project, “Analyzing Integrated Social Media-Facilitated Propaganda Campaigns Using Network Analytics & Cyber Forensics,” is part of a larger research program at UALR’s Center of Social Media & Online Behavioral Studies.

The professor said that what happens now is reactive, that the first thing investigators do after an incident is examine perpetrators’ social media footprints. He expected officials were doing that last week after the massacre of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

Agarwal’s team is identifying the online players — many of them bloggers — who are most influential in inspiring or planning acts such as bombings, mass shootings and protests, what strategies the groups are using and how they coordinate across multiple platforms. The researchers are using keyword searches to locate content to study.

The challenge is to address trends in a systematic way, the professor said. “It’s always like a cat-and-mouse game. You try to catch them and they’re always one step ahead.”

ISIS is releasing an average of 38 new items — videos, photo essays, articles and audio clips — every day, according to the Quilliam Foundation’s “Documenting the Virtual Caliphate.”

That content reinforces the ISIS slogan that it is “baqiya wa tatamaddad” — remaining and expanding, according to “Why Isis Is Winning the Social Media War,” an article in the April issue of Wired magazine.

The article argues that the terrorists’ social media content presents stories of ordinary fighters so that potential recruits can imagine themselves serving ISIS and using the vague ideological platform ISIS provides to build elaborate personal narratives of persecution or rage.

With social media, people don’t have to leave the U.S. to become radicalized and foment terrorism, according to The Police Chief magazine’s article “Social Media & the Homegrown Terrorist Threat.” Another advantage for groups like ISIS is that these homegrown terrorists can finance their own operations.

One of Argawal’s goals is to develop a predictive model that will alert authorities to national security threats like this.

The professor said that, so far, he’s found that the deviant groups are using automated programs to do things like retweet posts on Twitter.

They’re also hiring “trolls” at rates as high as $900 a month to post comments that cause hysteria, stoke anger and recruit members, Agarwal said.

Trolls have even commented on articles about NATO exercises that Agarwal’s team is participating in. He said they claim the exercises are a ruse to cover up preparation for a third world war.

His role and that of his students in the exercises has been to evaluate how effectively NATO’s public affairs office is reaching people on social media.

Agarwal said the research would help agencies improve their own narratives and disseminate materials to contradict what deviant groups are saying online.

The professor is involved in 12 projects total. Many of the others fit this theme and are funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, U.S. Air Force Research Lab and U.S. Army Research Office.

The professor added that, although national security is the focus of this research project and others he’s involved with, his results could also be used by businesses to stop cybersecurity attacks that may be coordinated using social media.

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