Amid reports of terrorist mastery of online tools and social media to spread propaganda and recruit followers, Arizona State University (ASU) was awarded the highly competitive Department of Defense (DoD) Minerva grant to research what makes certain information “go viral” in an effort to determine how the online actions of terrorists can be negated.
The Minerva Initiative is a DoD-sponsored, university-based social-science research initiative launched by the Secretary of Defense in 2008. It focuses on areas of strategic importance to US national security. This is the second time ASU has been chosen for a Minerva award.
ASU will use the grant to develop a new logic-based framework to better understand the mindset and motivations of extremist groups. This project will pay special attention to Southeast Asia, West Africa, Western Europe and the Middle East.
In turn, researchers hope to use this information to assist intelligence officials in predicting how conversations are tied to actual threats. From this point, new methods can be created to counter terrorist messaging strategies.
“The types of communication that move people to act in real communities also moves people in virtual communities,” noted project investigator Paulo Shakarian, assistant professor in the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering and director of the Cyber-Socio Intelligent System Lab. “It can start with a rumor or reaction to an event, it can spread via word of mouth, or by Twitter or Facebook.”
Widespread terrorist use of social media to spread propaganda and seduce new members has proven the importance of developing a counter narrative. Earlier this month, the House Committee on Homeland Security held a hearing to examine the role of the Internet and social media in spreading propaganda, recruiting followers, and directing jihadist-inspired attacks targeting the homeland.
The committee determined that the US needs to improve its counterterrorism efforts in response to ISIS’ relentless social media campaign, which has allowed jihadists to infiltrate every nook and cranny of the globe.
“The proliferation of jihadist propaganda online has established a new front in our battle against Islamist extremists,” said committee chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas). “We are no longer hunting terrorists living in caves who only communicate through couriers. We are facing an enemy whose messages and calls to violence are posted and promoted in real-time.”
Consequently, ASU isexamining how those looking to counter the violent ideology of groups like the Islamic State can monitor and analyze terrorist conversations to determine what is a significant danger and to then diffuse the extremist ideology.
“It is impossible to monitor all of the conversations, so we have to get better at identifying the ones to which we should be paying attention,” said Shakarian. “This requires embedding psycho-social models in a logic programming framework that can gather and analyze social networks, specific attributes of individuals and their relationships to others.”
The project team includes experts in the social sciences and computer engineering from ASU, the United States Military Academy at West Point and Exeter University in the United Kingdom. The team will study information cascades, which can “indicate short-term rumors, fads, or can point to longer-term social movements,” according to Hasan Davulcu, associate professor in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and director of ASU’s Cognitive Information Processing Systems Lab.
Specifically, the project aims to develop algorithms and tools to detect groups experiencing highest rates-of-change, characterize the types of change and identify their key drivers.
“This new project is a transdisciplinary approach to identify core features and underlying mechanisms of information cascades, in which tens and in some cases hundreds of thousands of individuals participate to spread information and opinions across the globe,” Davulcu said.
Project investigators, working alongside cultural consultants, will examine the behaviors of online communities in order to better understand how they interact, their key symbols, who they promote, and their ideological orientations. The team will also use online surveys, media studies, interviews, and meetings with local experts to determine extremist tendencies and personality types.
“We can’t rely on computer science, alone,” Davulcu said. “There are moments in time when key issues get identified. In Egypt, for example, prior to the 2011 revolution the Kefaya [meaning ‘enough’] movement opposing the political corruption and stagnation of Hosni Mubarak’s regime and its cruelty, coercion and disregard for human rights, drew its support from across Egypt’s political spectrum – bringing together diverse groups. These types of movements can work for and against stability depending on the violent or non-violent paths they take.”
ASU’s Minerva grant is situated in its Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, which incubates new research into the complex role of religion in human affairs. The center alsoled ASU’s initial Minerva project.
“The transdisciplinary environment of ASU has really enabled us to bring together faculty in innovative ways,” said Linell Cady, center director. “The fact that we have developed two successful Minerva projects is a real testament to the way in which integrating the deep knowledge of the humanities with cutting edge computer science can product a whole much greater than the sum of its parts.”