The vulnerability of critical infrastructure and financial systems to cyber operations remains a primary concern for national security. Protecting the state from cyber operations requires active deterrent measures through intelligence gathering, monitoring, and public-private cooperation in defense. However, when deterrence fails and malicious cyber activity occurs, questions arise about the ‘approprate’ response that balances escalation and deterrence (Borghard and Lonergan 2019). In seeking to understand how states choose to respond to cyber attacks,1 one important consideration is the significant public debate surrounding them.
Scholars have suggested public support for conflict may encourage governments to engage, while public opposition to conflict can restrain government behavior (Haesebrouck 2019; Kertzer and Brutger 2016; Kertzer et al. 2020; Levendusky and Horowitz 2012; Tomz and Weeks 2020). Currently, there is only a nascent literature on how the public reacts to cyber attacks. Survey work has found the public is less likely to support retaliation against cyber operations than against kinetic operations that produce the same effects (Kreps and Schneider 2019). It is not particularly clear why this is: psychological responses to cyber and conventional terrorism are similar (Gross et al. 2016), and individual concern about cybersecurity issues is low and resistant to change (Kostyuk and Wayne 2020). At least the scale of the cyber attack does seem to matter: scholars have found support for retaliation against cyber attacks with casualties (Kreps and Das 2017; Shandler et al. 2021) but a preference for restraint in response to electoral interference (Tomz et al. 2020). Existing experimental surveys provide an important foundation, but they leave many questions unanswered. While some existing research has found attitudes about cyber and kinetic conflicts differ, many existing surveys do not address the mechanisms by which these differences arise. One exception is Snider et al. 2021 which finds threat perception to be an important moderator for retaliation support.
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