Associate Professor Brian Ekdale and his collaborators have been awarded a $1.7 million grant to study the spread of strategic information operations (SIOs) on social media. Their project, “Identifying and Measuring User and Platform Vulnerabilities to Strategic Information Operations,” was selected for funding by the Department of Defense’s Minerva Research Initiative, which supports basic social science research related to national security.
The United States and its allies face a growing threat of influence campaigns organized by foreign actors to spread propaganda, disinformation, or manipulative content on social media platforms. These SIOs rely on user behaviors and algorithmic processes to circulate their content. Ekdale’s team is studying how user- and platform- specific vulnerabilities are exploited by SIOs to increase their reach and effectiveness.
“What we’re studying is the interaction between people and platforms and the feedback loop that takes place between the people and the platforms,” said Ekdale.
The goals of the study are to identify platform vulnerabilities to SIOs and to propose mitigation measures for the identified vulnerabilities. This study examines user engagement in three regions—the United States, Central and Eastern Europe, and East Africa.
“We want to know whether a ‘like’ means the same in America that it means in Kenya, that in means in the Ukraine,” said Ekdale.
The interdisciplinary research utilizes humanistic, social scientific, and computational methods to understand platforms’ vulnerabilities to SIOs. The study uses a mixed methods design where each research finding informs the next step in the research process.
“What we want to be able to do is basically chart out a categorization of what are vulnerabilities to different campaigns,” said Ekdale. “And when we know these vulnerabilities, we can propose mitigation strategies.”
The research is being conducted by the Algorithms and Culture Research Group, which includes SJMC doctoral students Katy Biddle and Javie Ssozi as well as University of Iowa assistant professor of computer science Rishab Nithyanand and computer science doctoral students Hussam Habib and Sarmad Chandio.
External collaborators on the project include associate professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State Andrew High, assistant professor of digital journalism at Appalachia State University Volha Kananovich, assistant professor of African and African American studies and film and media studies at Washington University in St. Louis Raven Maragh-Lloyd and assistant professor of advertising at Drake Ryan Stoldt. Kananovich and Stoldt both received doctoral degrees from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa, while Maragh-Lloyd received her doctorate from Communication Studies at Iowa.