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Identifying and Measuring User and Platform Vulnerabilities

PI: Brian Ekdale, University of Iowa

Year selected for award: 2022

Identifying and Measuring User and Platform Vulnerabilities to Strategic Information Operations

Principal Investigator: Brian Ekdale, University of Iowa

Co-Investigators: Rishab Nithyanand, University of Iowa; Andrew High, Penn State University; Volha Kananovich, Appalachian State University;  Raven Maragh-Lloyd, Washington University in St. Louis; Ryan Stoldt, Drake University

Years of Award: 2023-2026

Managing Service Agency: Air Force Office of Scientific Research

Project Description:
The United States and its allies face a growing threat of strategic information operations (SIO), influence campaigns organized by foreign actors to spread propaganda, disinformation, or manipulative content on social media platforms. Prior work has uncovered many dynamics of SIOs; however, what is lacking is an understanding of how user- and platform-specific vulnerabilities are exploited by SIOs to increase their reach and effectiveness. After all, SIOs do not merely take place on platforms, they are mediated through platforms. Platforms circulate content, including influence campaigns, through an algorithmic process that uses engagement metrics to map user preferences and classify posts. Platform algorithms, in turn, use this data to identify and deliver content deemed relevant to users, creating a feedback loop between user engagement and algorithmic curation. In other words, how a user chooses to engage with propaganda, disinformation, or manipulative content will affect the likelihood that the platform delivers similar content to that user in the future.

Our primary objective is to taxonomize platforms’ vulnerabilities to SIOs while accounting for the dynamics between variables in the user-platform interaction model. After constructing this taxonomy, our secondary objective is to propose feasible mitigation strategies for the identified vulnerabilities.