CLAS faculty receive $1.7 million grant to study social media and national security

UI Journalism associate professor Brian Ekdale and Computer Science assistant professor Rishab Nithyanand are collaborating on the project along with graduate students, alumni, and external faculty.
Monday, July 10, 2023

By Katie Linder 

The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences recently received a $1.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to study social media and how its vulnerabilities can impact national security.  

The project “Identifying and Measuring User and Platform Vulnerabilities to Strategic Information Operations” will study the strategic spread of influence campaigns using social media.  

Strategic Information Operations (SIOs) are led by bad actors, often foreign governments or extremist groups, and they work to spread misinformation, propaganda, and manipulative messaging targeted at the United States and its allies on the internet. These strategies rely on social media, including user behavior and algorithms, to amplify and move their messages effectively.  

The University of Iowa research team, led by journalism associate professor Brian Ekdale and computer science assistant professor Rishab Nithyanand seeks to understand how these vulnerabilities both from users and the platforms are exploited by these actors.   

Brian Ekdale and Rishab Nithyanand

“What we’re studying is the interaction between people and platforms and the feedback loop that takes place between the people and the platforms,” Ekdale, who is the PI on the project, explains. 

The study's goals are to identify vulnerabilities being taken advantage of and propose mitigation measures. This study examines social media user engagement in three regions—the United States, Central and Eastern Europe, and East Africa. 

“We aim to uncover vulnerabilities in online platforms and their recommendation algorithms which enable coordinated mass manipulation. Our goal is to systematically analyze and identify these vulnerabilities, developing mechanisms to prevent their exploitation,” Nithyanand explains.  

The research is being conducted by the UI Algorithms and Culture Research Group, which includes doctoral students in both programs. Katy Biddle and Javie Ssozi of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and Department of Computer Science doctoral students Hussam Habib and Sarmad Chandio are working on the project.  

This project is one of 11 university-based teams to receive a portion of $18 million in grant allocation by the Department of Defense and its Minerva Research Initiative in May. This initiative supports basic research in social and behavioral sciences on topics of relevance to U.S. national security.  

External collaborators on the project include Andrew High, associate professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State; Volha Kananovich, assistant professor of digital journalism at Appalachian State University; Raven Maragh-Lloyd, assistant professor of African and African American studies and film and media studies at Washington University in St. Louis; and Ryan Stoldt, assistant professor of advertising at Drake.  

Three of the collaborators are Iowa graduates. Kananovich and Stoldt both received doctoral degrees from the UI School of Journalism and Mass Communication, while Maragh-Lloyd received her doctorate from the Department of Communication Studies – both programs are housed in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.  

The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences offers about 70 majors across the humanities; fine, performing and literary arts; natural and mathematical sciences; social and behavioral sciences; and communication disciplines. About 15,000 undergraduate and nearly 2,000 graduate students study each year in the college’s 37 departments, led by faculty at the forefront of teaching and research in their disciplines. The college teaches all Iowa undergraduates through the college's general education program, CLAS CORE. About 80 percent of all Iowa undergraduates begin their academic journey in CLAS. The college confers about 60 percent of the university's bachelor's degrees each academic year.