ARA Fellow Dr. Nitin Agarwal Puts Science on the Frontlines
Anyone monitoring the nation’s daily COVID-19 updates know just how deadly the virus is and how rapidly it spreads. However, another dangerous contagion is infecting communities worldwide right alongside COVID-19, and it’s even more difficult to contain.
“We call it an ‘infodemic’ which is in many ways more dangerous than COVID-19,” explains Dr. Nitin Agarwal, Arkansas Research Alliance (ARA) Fellow and Distinguished Professor of Information Science at UA Little Rock. “The cases of misinformation about the virus are rising exponentially from the dark corners of the web.”
Dr. Agarwal is Director of The Collaboratorium for Social Media and Online Behavioral Studies, or COSMOS. He and his team of cosmographers study social media and online behavior to combat threats to social good, ranging from safeguarding elections to countering terrorism. The work of COSMOS is now being used to put down this current threat of harmful misinformation regarding the pandemic.
The range of misinformation is expansive. “Fake cures. Medical equipment scams. Anti-foreign sentiment. Basically, anything designed to sow division and unravel the fabric of our society,” says Dr. Agarwal. “This environment of high-anxiety makes it easy for us to fall prey to fake news.”
COSMOS is partnering with the Arkansas Office of the Attorney General to develop a website that can help people identify, understand, and even report fake news regarding COVID-19. The technology is supported by the work COSMOS has completed for agencies like the U.S. Navy, U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, DARPA, and the National Science Foundation among many others. Still, the new website requires new methodology to combat the problem at hand.
“We’re working night and day because we really wanted to do something to help Arkansas,” says Dr. Agarwal. “The Arkansas Research Alliance helped put us in touch with the Attorney General, and now we believe this can be a resource used nationally, or even globally.”
Dr. Agarwal also credits the ARA Fellows grant with helping him fund projects dealing with unexpected events like COVID-19.
“We’re working with the Arkansas Attorney General on a volunteer basis,” says Dr. Agarwal. “The ARA funds made that possible.”
The website, cosmos.ualr.edu/covid-19, is an essential tool to countering the spread of misinformation, which too often takes fraudulent advantage the anxiety associated with the virus. “This pandemic has created an unprecedented level of uncertainty and I will not tolerate bad actors seeking to leverage this crisis to fill their pocketbooks,” said Attorney General Rutledge. “The goal with this partnership is to make sure we are quickly identifying fake websites that are spreading misinformation with the purpose of stealing from Arkansans.”
Dr. Agarwal wants to remind people that news spreads fast online – the weirder the faster. “The only way to expose these dark characters on the web is to shine a light on them. Our mission is to shine that light.”