Sony is no stranger to cyberattacks. Over the past decade, the company has faced numerous high-profile security incidents, such as the massive 2011 PlayStation Network hack that allegedly exposed 77 million users' data to smaller-scale website defacements. So when reports surfaced in October that a ransomware group had hacked "all of Sony's systems," it was perhaps inevitable that certain narratives would emerge online in response.
On September 25th, a threat actor collective called Ransomed.VC claimed on a dark web forum to have breached Sony's systems. They threatened to release the stolen data on September 28th unless an unspecified ransom was paid. While Sony said it was investigating the claims, no evidence of compromised systems or data exfiltration materialized. As such, the incident appears to have been a clout-chasing hoax. Yet the reputational damage was already done. Within hours, Sony's alleged breach became a significant topic of discussion online among tech media, gamers, and other consumers.
This visualization represents interactions between social media users starting the first day of the hack. The visualization is highly intertwined, indicating that many users likely interacted with numerous narratives.
Blackbird.AI’s Narrative Intelligence Platform Constellation revealed several dominant narratives that could impact the company’s brand trust and reputation:
Each of the following narratives received high engagement for the topic. The most engaged users often included news of the attack, joke posts or memes, or a strong opinion. The high levels of engagement usually indicate that narratives cascade widely across the internet. After news of the hack surfaced, 14.5% of posts displayed signs of bot-like activity, meaning some degree of automation was likely used to generate a high content volume.
Narrative 1: Loss of Trust Around Personal Information
The breach claims triggered thousands of posts about the safety of personal data held by Sony, including credit card details associated with PlayStation Network (PSN) accounts. Many users recommended removing payment information from one's PSN profile "just in case." Some declared they would never trust Sony again with their personal info. This loss of trust poses significant business risks for Sony.
Narrative 2: Anger Over Sony’s Security
Many users expressed frustration over Sony's inability to secure its networks and consumer data. Citing the numerous past breaches, tens of thousands of online engagements characterized Sony's security practices as "garbage" and subpar compared to other tech giants. Memes mocking Sony's cyber defenses proliferated. These takes echo users' sentiments during previous breaches like the 2011 hack, showing that Sony has been unable to shake its stigma of vulnerability.
Narrative 3: Anger Over Price Hikes Amid Poor Security
A notable narrative called out perceived discrepancies between the prices Sony charges for its products and services and the security quality it provides. Angry customers complained that despite repeated price increases on PlayStation consoles, games, and online services, Sony "still cannot protect" user data from hackers. To these critics, each new breach demonstrates that Sony is taking people's money while failing to invest enough in securing its networks. Such sentiment feeds on existing frustrations among consumers about high prices in the gaming industry. Sony must be mindful that cyber incidents amplify anger over pricing, especially among its most loyal yet cost-sensitive customers. Breaches provide fodder for narratives that the company charges too much for inadequate security protections. Sony needs messaging to counteract this image of overcharging and under-delivering.
Narrative 4: Speculation Over Jim Ryan's Retirement
Some online commentary tried to link Sony Interactive Entertainment CEO Jim Ryan's retirement announcement to the alleged breach. Ryan, who oversaw the PlayStation business, announced he would step down in a few months, shortly after the hack claims surfaced. While Ryan has worked at Sony for nearly 30 years and was likely ready to retire regardless, some users speculated that the breach was "the last straw" that precipitated his departure. They claimed Ryan was losing faith in Sony's security or could no longer deal with the repeated cyber incidents. In reality, no evidence suggests Ryan's retirement was breach-related. However, the narrative shows how users can conflate events and make speculative attributions, further fueling doubts about a company's competence and leadership in the wake of an alleged incident. Sony must be cognizant of such narrative risks.
Narrative 5: Console Wars: Xbox is Superior
For console fanboys, the breach allegations triggered thousands to claim the superiority of Microsoft's Xbox over Sony's PlayStation. Xbox users gloated that their preferred platform does not suffer from regular headline-grabbing hacks, urging PlayStation owners to "switch sides." Such console war rhetoric contributes to the erosion of brand loyalty among Sony's core gaming audience.
Narrative 6: Another Cyber Breach for Sony
Rather than view this incident in isolation, thousands posted Sony's breach-laden history. Still feeling the reputational damage from 2011's massive PlayStation Network hack, they lamented that Sony had been victimized yet again by cybercriminals. Breach fatigue set in among customers. Comparisons to earlier incidents abounded.
This is an activity graph that represents the initial spike of engagements Sony received following the news of the alleged hack. This indicates how quickly narratives can spread across social media regardless of the veracity of the claims.
The common thread across these narratives is the erosion of trust in Sony as a steward of customer data and provider of secure digital services. Whether the latest incident was an actual intrusion or mere clout-chasing by ransomware scammers, years of high-profile breaches have depleted the stock of public trust Sony can draw from in the face of each new alleged hack. This dynamic illustrates the outsized reputational risks of cyber incidents for companies that have "been breached before."
Sony is now in full damage control mode. Its statement urging caution around the breach claims failed to stem the spread of negative narratives online. While it investigates the integrity of the incident, Sony is also rebuilding brand trust in the eyes of consumers. For companies with breach-laden histories, false incident narratives can be just as reputationally damaging as actual attacks.
To learn more about how Blackbird.AI can help in these situations, reach out to us here.
Blackbird.AI helps organizations detect and respond to threats that cause reputational and financial harm. Powered by their AI-Driven Narrative & Risk Intelligence Constellation Platform, organizations can proactively understand risks and threats to their reputation in real-time. Blackbird.AI was founded by a team of experts from artificial intelligence, and national security, with a mission to defend authenticity and fight narrative manipulation. Recognized by Forrester as a "Top Threat Intelligence Company," Blackbird.AI's technology is used by many of the world's largest organizations for strategic decision making
BALANCING THE COMPLEXITIES OF ONLINE DISCOURSE
While all these recommendations seem to be sound, the likelihood that these measures can be agreed upon and implemented are becoming increasingly less likely in the U.S. and around the world. In fact, we have been moving in the opposite direction. Platforms have begun to roll back access for research communities, decrease moderation around misinformation, or strike down moderation altogether in the name of freedom of expression. The very notion of banning a popular platform in the U.S. would have seemed unthinkable a few short years ago, with organizations like the ACLU strongly voicing that a ban on TikTok would violate the First Amendment.