The Sony hack: North Korea finds a new PR tactic?

The hackers - "Guardians of Peace", or #GOP - displayed this message on Sony computers in the initial attack. Image credit: Sophos.

The hackers – “Guardians of Peace”, or #GOP – displayed this message on Sony computers in the initial attack. Image credit: Sophos.

Converged communicators studying Public Relations Strategy (that’s PUR3801, not PUR3000) know that organizations launching a PR campaign have a wide range of tactics at their disposal. These span the spectrum of responses from counterattack to denial to restitution to apology. Now, we may be able to add an entirely new one: hacking. It’s all part of a storm of controversy surrounding the Sony-produced film The Interview, a comedy that depicts a supposed plot to assassinate North Korea’s erratic ruler Kim Jong Un. The ensuing conflict has stirred up just about every aspect of new media imaginable – law, ethics, awful digital media writing in online threats, convergence of technologies, international business, and the broader social effects of technology. Call it a symphony of discord in converged communications.

Sony likely recognized that the movie’s bizarre premise might not exactly win the approval of the North Korean government but didn’t expect serious repercussions. That all changed in November, when a previously unknown group calling itself “Guardians of Peace,” or #GOP, struck Sony with a blitz of hacking attacks. The hackers destroyed files, leaked embarrassing e-mails and confidential employee information, and even released details about a coming James Bond movie. The attack took a still more sinister turn this week when the hackers threatened violence against theaters showing the film, citing the September 11 attacks. The text, as published in The Guardian:

We will clearly show it to you at the very time and places “The Interview” be shown, including the premiere, how bitter fate those who seek fun in terror should be doomed to.

Soon all the world will see what an awful movie Sony Pictures Entertainment has made.

The world will be full of fear.

Remember the 11th of September 2001.

We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time.

(If your house is nearby, you’d better leave.)

Whatever comes in the coming days is called by the greed of Sony Pictures Entertainment.

All the world will denounce the SONY.

Finally, with concern mounting and alarmed movie fans debating whether the hackers would find a way to carry out their threats, Sony announced Friday that it was canceling its plans to release The Interview, as reported by The Independent in London. The decision means a staggering financial loss for the company, which reportedly spent more than $40 million on its production.

Needless to say, the situation has generated strong reactions. Many Americans, both in the entertainment industry and outside, considered Sony’s decision a surrender to criminal and terrorist acts, as reported by the BBC. The exact origin of the attacks is still under investigation, but USA Today reports American authorities believe the attack was ultimately backed by North Korea. If this proves to be the case, North Korea has shown that a new and frightening tactic – massive cyberattack followed by threats of violence – can effectively silence a message. That’s a sobering illustration that 21st-century technology, for all its promise, doesn’t always serve the cause of freedom in the age of converged communications.

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