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Creighton researcher awarded $585K Air Force grant to study internet mobs

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ISIS terrorists in Samer Al-khateeb’s home country of Iraq ginned up mobs on social media to pull in recruits, watch violent propaganda videos and launch coordinated attacks on enemies via Twitter.

Now Al-khateeb, an assistant professor of computer science, design and journalism at Creighton University, has received a three-year, $585,000 grant from the Air Force to learn more about how social media mobs form and succeed.

The research could lead to strategies for countering groups like the Islamic State that use mobs to create harm.

“How do these events form? What are the effects that will make (people) act, or not act?” Al-khateeb said. “It has a lot of applications.”

He’ll be leading a team that also includes Rebecca Murray, an associate dean of social sciences and professional programs at Creighton, and Nitin Agarwal, a professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock who was Al-khateeb’s adviser in graduate school.

Al-khateeb said the project will involve creating a computer model of social media networks using mathematical formulas grounded in decades of social science theory.

Once the model is developed, he said, the team will test certain factors to see how they impact the formation of mobs within the model. And they’ll compare their results with historical online mob situations.

Social media mobs can be benign, or even positive, Al-khateeb said — say, a “flash mob” that brings strangers together to sing or dance in a public place.

“The idea is to understand how mobs of various types happen, what strategies are used, and what factors contribute to mobs’ success or failure,” Al-khateeb said. “So if a deviant mob happens, you are prepared.”

Al-khateeb, 33, has seen the effects of mob-inspired recruitment and violence in his home country.

He was a middle school student in Baghdad when the U.S. invasion toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. War and terrorism formed a backdrop to life in Baghdad during his teen years.

“When I started college in 2007, every day there was a bombing,” Al-khateeb said. In 2009, he narrowly missed being killed when a bomb exploded at a location near his school just a couple of minutes after he was there.

That year, after passing a series of rigorous security checks, he qualified for a U.S. visa to study computer science at UA-Little Rock.

“It was an opportunity to start a new life and focus on what I love — science, and helping people,” Al-khateeb said.

He took a class from Agarwal, an information science professor who founded COSMOS (the Collaboratorium for Social Media and Online Behavioral Studies).

In that class, Agarwal showed the results of his research into how women in Saudi Arabia organized on social media to resist the kingdom’s ban on women driving. Some posted videos of themselves behind the wheel.

“I said, ‘This is fascinating! I would like to learn how to do this,’” Al-khateeb recalled.

Through his master’s, doctorate and postdoctoral studies, he has researched social media phenomena such as flash mobs, propaganda, and fake news dissemination, and how deviant groups such as ISIS or hackers perform them.

In 2018, Al-khateeb accepted a faculty position in Creighton’s College of Arts and Sciences. He preferred staying in academia over working in private industry.

“The smile on my students’ faces when I explain things — I love it!” he said.

Al-khateeb’s grant is funded by the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research through a program called the Department of Defense Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (DEPSCoR). The program aims to boost the number of science and engineering academics who can support the Pentagon’s research needs.

Gina Ligon, who heads NCITE, a counterterrorism think tank headquartered at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said Al-khateeb’s research has potential for both the military and homeland security.

“The nexus between political instability abroad and the troops’ safety to do the mission here is so important,” she said.

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