The ripple effects of ransomware attacks are affecting millions of American pocketbooks for the first time, and public opinion is finally awakening to the dangers posed by these cybercriminals.
Following recent large-scale cyber-attacks against Colonial Pipeline and the meatpacking company JBS, cybersecurity has leaped to the forefront of people’s minds. With many of these attacks suspected of originating in Russia, we wanted to know how swing voters think President Biden should respond.
On June 8, our firm conducted a pair of online focus groups with a total of 13 adults from key swing states who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, then Joe Biden in 2020. Two respondents were Democrats, six were Republicans, and five were independents.
Andrew, 58, a Republican from Brown, WI, said, “Cyber attacks [are] really what concerns me right now…. We’re not prepared at all. It’s just too easy to hit us any way they want it.” He, along with one other respondent, cited cyber-attacks as his top issue of concern.
While participants acknowledged the attacks’ seriousness, most took a fairly soft stance on how to approach Russian President Vladimir Putin about it, and rejected going as far as even intimating military action.
Tanya, a 45-year-old Florida Republican, suggested using economic leverage over Putin, then added, “I don’t think a retaliation for us, either military-wise or going after them, is beneficial to anybody. I think that will just escalate into a massive war.”
William, 27, an independent from Grand Rapids, MI, agreed. He wanted Biden to confront Putin and say, “Hey, man, let’s try to work something out here. What do you guys want? This money? What’s this beef about?”
So what do these respondents think President Biden should say when he meets with Putin on June 16?
Kelli, 41, a Republican from Seminole County, FL, dismissed the question: “Doesn’t matter. [Biden’s] not going to get a straight answer out of him anyway.” She added, “You can’t control the bully. You can only control your response to the bully.” But military action would go way too far for her: “I would like to think that we would not go to war just because a government’s not cracking down on their citizens enough for doing something that interferes with our daily life.”
Holly, 52, a Democrat from Gwinnett County, GA, said, “We can threaten him, but I…think he’ll just laugh it off,” echoing Kelli’s attitude. “I think we need to strengthen our security.”
As part of our conversation, we played a three-minute video clip of ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos interviewing U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo on June 6. In it, Raimondo addressed Russia’s role in the attacks by saying, “We’re not taking anything off the table as we think about possible repercussions, consequences, or retaliation.” For many of our respondents, her responses were unsatisfying.
“I don’t think she actually gave any answers—concrete answers at least,” said Jessyca, 35, an independent from Apopka, FL. “Just, ‘We’re trying. It’s a priority. We’re looking into it.’” Others similarly complained that Raimondo sidestepped questions and didn’t offer specifics.
What they wanted to hear is that the government will create a task force to come up with digital and technological tools that will help businesses, as well as offer tax credits to help businesses deal with the costs of better protecting themselves. In short, they want our defenses strengthened—but they don’t want war.
Some participants directed blame for the cyber-attacks towards private actors instead of directly at Putin.
Farah, a 44-year-old Republican, cast doubt that “the [Russian] government is responsible.” She continued, “These [cyber criminals] are individuals….You can’t go to the government [and] say, ‘You need to get your people to start listening.’”
Barry, 46, an independent from Orange County, NC, differed from Farah when he suggested Biden say to Putin, “You need to rein in your people.” He continued, “Tell him to knock it off, in the political way….Putin’s not going to back down because he doesn’t want to show weakness, but Biden needs to also show some strength in that he’s addressing it somehow.”
When one of us (Rich) pressed these respondents on their minimally confrontational suggestions, they mostly held their ground. When it was suggested that Biden should implicitly threaten to do whatever Russia is doing to us, only two out of the seven participants in that group supported it.
Andrew, in the minority, explained, “[Putin] doesn’t know any other way…You gotta hit him.”
Chris, 42, a Republican from Maricopa County, AZ, took the most aggressive stance, proposing, “I would ask [Putin], ‘Is it your state actors? Are you trying to instigate a war?’” He went further by suggesting the U.S. “unleash holy hell from our end” in the form of offensive cyber-attacks if Russia did not back down.
If President Biden truly has his fingers on the pulse of American public opinion, he’ll recognize that Americans want this problem dealt with, but not with live bullets.
Rich is the president of Engagious. His company is the industry leader in scientifically testing and refining the effectiveness of business and issue-advocacy content, moment-to-moment. The firm helps its clients become more successful by applying the power of behavioral science and social psychology to dial test focus groups.