Do cyberattacks fuel the politics of threat? By what mechanism does it do so? To address these questions, we employ a technological and physiological experiment (2 · 2) involving a simulated cyberattack. Participants were randomly assigned to ‘‘cyberattack’’ (treatment) or ‘‘no attack’’ (control) conditions. We find that cyberattacks make people more likely to express threat perceptions; we suggest salivary cortisol, a measure of stress, as the mechanism bridging cyber and the politics of threat. Contrary to existing evidence, salivary cortisol is the mechanism that translates simulated exposure to cyberattacks into political threat perceptions.
Just as 9/11 highlighted the need to understand how exposure to terrorism affects citizens’ psychological reactions and sense of threat,1,2 cyberattacks across the globe call on experimentalists to study their impact. As these attacks grow in frequency, the politics of threat—how threat perceptions impact political attitudes and therefore a state’s political reality—and cyber threat in particular, will become an ever more important area of study.
This study is one of the first experimental investigations of cyberattacks based upon a comprehensive psychological model. Moreover, it is, to our knowledge, the first study to examine salivary cortisol as an indicator of stress responses to cyberattacks. Cyberattacks employ malware, viruses, and other forms of computer technology to further political, religious, or ideological goals by harming civilians physically or psychologically. Cyberattackers hope to terrify and demoralize their victims by undermining digital and financial resources and social networks, and/or by threatening physical harm. While there are fears that as cyberattacks grow they will undermine well-being across society,there are no experimental designs to substantiate this argument
perimental designs to substantiate this argument. To investigate the effects of cyberattacks, we exposed subjects to simulated cyberterror attacks. Integrating a stress-based model of exposure to terrorism6 and a biomedical measurement of salivary cortisol to assess stress and related threat perceptions, our findings suggest that individuals exposed to cyberattacks show an increase in cyber-induced stress, which exacerbates perceptions of violent threat and personal insecurity.
Cyberattacks and the Politics of Threat
In the absence of realistic experimental data on the psychological effects of cyberattacks, we turn to cybercrime and kinetic (high explosive) terrorism for analogous data. Victims of identity theft and cyberbullying report moderate or severe emotional distress,7 indicating a sense of ‘‘moral panic,’’8 anger, fear, anxiety, mistrust, and loss of confidence.9 The effects of kinetic terrorism include posttraumatic stress, depression, and anticipatory anxiety.6,10,11 These consequences of kinetic terrorism undermine one’s sense of security, increase feelings of vulnerability, foster a threatening worldview, and increase support for hard-line policies.12,13 Studies demonstrate how individuals exposed to terrorism (9/11 and Oklahoma City bombing, respectively) show significantly greater levels of reactivity, particularly stress, as measured by the stress hormone cortisol, than the nonexposed subjects.2,14,15 We expect victims of cyberattacks to respond similarly; subjects exposed to cyberattacks will show greater levels of stress than nonexposed subjects. Although cyberattacks have yet to cause physical harm, fears of future catastrophic cyberattacks multiply. Cyberattacks raise concerns about online safety that spill into the victim’s offline physical life