In most academic and governmental literature, homeland and national security are different disciplines. They are listed in policy and studied in universities as if they are barely related. Homeland security is typically considered either a sub-component of national security or synonymous with policing and emergency management. By defining homeland security in this way, it has never really accounted for transnational threats and has become outdated.
The evolving nature of transnational threats, such as social media-based foreign influence operations, has erased the notion that the homeland is separate. Simultaneously, as technology continues to connect the world, treating homeland and national security as distinctive only keeps the exploitable seams open.
A digital two-level game
In reality, because of the nature of some threats, the adversary is already considered within the homeland, just not physically. In the case of cyber, there is a recognition of this. In other threat areas, such as influence operations, a similar understanding lags behind.
This matters for a number of reasons. One of them is that we live in what political scientist Robert Putnam described in 1988 as a “puzzling tangle,” or complicated interplay between international and domestic environments. Putnam outlined in Diplomacy and domestic politics: the logic of two-level games that negotiators were mindful of how international discussions play out domestically and vice versa.
The two-level game theory demonstrated the interconnectedness between homeland and national security issues. More current literature from 2018 explores why the “digital two-level game” is different from its predecessor. One of the divergences is nation’s use of “sharp power” which can “pierce, penetrate, or perforate the information and political environment in the targeted countries.” This is now conducted at speed and scale in the information space.
The post-2016 Russian covert influence activity within the U.S. is illustrative. From a Russian point of view, it is utilizing covert influence operations consistent with Putnam's “two-level” game concept. The Russian government exploits polarizing opportunities within the U.S. to weaken the U.S. position abroad. The impact of Russian-backed disinformation has proven hard for the government to detect, explain, and effectively counter.
Failures combating foreign-backed covert influence operations
There are two main reasons the government struggles to detect, explain, and counter foreign-backed covert influence operations in the homeland.
1. Lack of clear definitions
In August of 2022, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (IG) released a report titled, “DHS Needs a Unified Strategy to Disinformation Campaigns.” The report indicated the department lacked a coherent strategy to counter both foreign and domestic-based disinformation. While the point of the document is accurate, the merits of the report point to a more systemic flaw. When describing disinformation and how it fits into homeland security, the IG is as confused as the greater department.
When making its case, the IG conflates and confuses terms such as disinformation and misinformation, and uses definitions that are ambiguous and open to interpretation, using at least four different definitions for disinformation.
One such definition from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure and Security Agency describes disinformation “as fabricated information intended to mislead or cause harm.” In another generated by DHS HQ, it reads as follows: “Disinformation is manufactured information deliberately created or disseminated to mislead, harm, or manipulate a person, group, or country. A disinformation campaign occurs when a person, group of people or entity (i.e., a “threat actor” or a hostile nation) coordinates to distribute false or misleading information while concealing the true objectives of the campaign.” In a third instance, the report notes countering disinformation is part of the department’s strategy as outlined in Prevent Terrorism and Targeted Violence, goal 3. Within the Prevent Terrorism and Targeted Violence, disinformation is never defined. Instead, the term is used to link terrorism-related violence and nation-state activity designed to enhance polarization.
Finally, in another part of the report, the Homeland Security Threat Assessment (HTA) is discussed. A review of the HTA revealed this definition, “disinformation: A foreign government’s deliberate use of false or misleading information intentionally directed at another government’s decision makers and decision-making processes to mislead the target, force it to waste resources, or influence a decision in favor of a foreign government’s interests.”
The various ways the department defines disinformation is not something the IG notes as a discrepancy as it, too, mixes terms liberally. Therefore, the report adds to the overall ambiguity, but the IG is not unique here. Similarly to the department and the broader security architecture, the IG uses a diversity of definitions to try and pinpoint what disinformation is. These terms tend to conflict with each other or mash a variety of ideas together. One of the many consequences of this is an inability of domestic facing agencies to fully understand their role and marshal resources to counter the threat.
2. Lack of technology to track online threats at scale
Security agencies often don’t have the tools to identify and track cross-platform coordinated activity. Social media activity is often reviewed by looking at each social media platform. For example, Twitter may be reviewed for Russian-backed covert activity, next could be Facebook, then perhaps Telegram, and so on. The process is slow and makes it difficult to connect influence operations being conducted simultaneously across platforms. To combat disinformation at scale, agencies need end-to-end threat intelligence tools that allow for rapid data collection, analysis, and decision making.
Taking important steps to counter transnational threats
To more effectively detect and counter a transnational threat like foreign-backed disinformation, we must recognize where and why national and homeland security have merged and the related vulnerabilities. This is particularly important when facing off against influence operations conducted at speed and scale from Russia. The next important step is implementing the right technology and processes to tackle the problem. This means addressing foreign-backed covert influence operations from a cross-platform perspective and looking at emerging narratives rather than individual posts.