We are observing a political and diplomatic nightmare with the hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment by the so-called Guardians of Peace. After leaking thousands of internal documents and emails, the group threatened to further mayhem if Sony released The Interview as planned. (Just a reminder: the plot of the film is about a fictional assassination attempt on North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-Un.) The effects of this attack have been propagated not through servers per se...but by word-of-mouth and social media.
A digital influence coup
The main digital influence principle is very simple: a digital influencer is anyone who has the capacity to influence one or more people. The Guardians of Peace used this adage in a very smart way, only releasing the beginning of plot, then letting rumors grow and define next episodes.
The storytelling is skilled: the group offered a perfect Hollywood-like script to the general public, the story of supposedly North Koreans hacktivists trying to impose their dogma on America. It sounds like a Sunday treat on Netflix, but word-of-mouth amplifiers (to summarize: journalists, top bloggers, etc.) bought this story. Making the fictional plot...true.
Bringing personal, business, glamourous layers to the story
The magic of this coup lies in the wide diversity of stakeholders who had an opinion on Sonygate. Gossip spread through the Hollywood press, repeatedly shared all over the world by celebrity columnists in every single lifestyle magazine. Political observers are still frenetically commenting on the story; but instead of questioning the facts (like George Clooney actually did), they were commenting with their own tweets or articles.
Sony Pictures also increased the trap on that matter: how to still make money while the film seems forbidden in theaters? Would there be a way to make money while surfing on the buzz? Sony Picutres has been, in less than few days, both a victim, a guilty organization, an enemy and an ally. Massive confusion helped make the story even more interesting, as no one really understands what is going on. Except the Guardians of Peace.
Disaligning Hollywood and the White House
A spectacular ally named President Obama joined the fun, accusing Sony of having reacted badly:
"I wish they had spoken to me first (...) I would have told them do not get into a pattern in which you're intimidated by these kinds of criminal attacks."
In response, the Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO (who actively supported Barack Obama during the last elections) said that the President might be misinformed on the real situation and balance of power between the studio and the theaters.
President Obama, by explicitly naming "some dictators" as the enemy, and by threatening to put North Korea back on state terror list, gave an amazing accelerator to the Guardians of Peace impact: there are now two camps, two states, whereas most cyber-security experts demonstrated why North Korea might not be the leader of this attack.
What can be done and can't be done...
The measures are really not easy to implement: North Korea is an utterly isolated country and we can't seriously imagine sending US troops into North Korea in the short term...for this affair.
North Koreans can't, of course, ask for a joint inquiry, but at any rate we can't seriously imagine the US working hand-in-hand with the Koreans.
Sony can't really attack anyone, using the First Amendment as explained by Leslie Franck:
"Courts try not to decide First Amendment protection based on the content of the speech, but rather whether there is a public policy interest in protecting it. I can't think of one reason that publishing this information would counteract the protections of the First Amendment."
The biggest fear that this digital influence case study suggests lies in the fact that no one can be held responsible. Not a state, nor identified people. This is a new legal and political imbroglio which will probably not go in favour of our privacy.