When it comes to cybersecurity incidents – public opinion matters. But how do voters form opinions in the aftermath of cyberattacks that are shrouded in ambiguity? How do people account for the uncertainty inherent in cyberspace to forge preferences following attacks? This article seeks to answer these questions by introducing an uncertainty threshold mechanism predicting the level of attributional certainty required for the public to support economic, diplomatic or military responses following cyberattacks. Using a discrete-choice experimental design with 2025 US respondents, we find lower attributional certainty is associated with less support for retaliation, yet this mechanism is contingent on the suspected identity of the attacker and partisan identity. Diplomatic allies possess a reservoir of good will that amplifies the effect of uncertainty, while rivals are less often given the benefit of the doubt. We demonstrate that uncertainty encourages the use of cognitive schemas to overcome ambiguity, and that people fall back upon pre-existing and politically guided views about the suspected country behind an attack. If the ambiguity surrounding cyberattacks has typically been discussed as an operational and strategic concern, this article shifts the focus of attention to the human level and positions the mass public as a forgotten yet important party during cyber conflict.
This was originally published on SAGE Publications Ltd: Journal of Peace Research: Table of Contents.