Analysis Culture Twitter — Tanya Nitins, 26 September 2011
Sony Hacking Coverage on Twitter

Hi! Let me introduce myself–my name is Tanya Nitins and I’m working with my QUT colleagues Axel and Jean, and researchers based at the University of Muenster on an ATN-DAAD project (see related blog post here). My particular research interests in relation to this project center around brand development and management in social media, with a particular emphasis on entertainment industries. The research collaboration between QUT and Muenster is focusing on deciphering the new dynamics of brand communication in the context of social media. In particular, we want to understand how businesses monitor and respond to negative publicity and/or criticism in such social media sites as Twitter.

When controversy erupted around the hacking of the Sony Playstation Network earlier this year, I was particularly keen to begin monitoring the Twitter conversations developing around the Sony hashtag. This case study would enable us to begin exploring the immediate and (often) disruptive effects of social media such as Twitter on brand development and management. In addition, the project would also provide us with the opportunity to try different combinations of basic quantitative research techniques with manual qualitative techniques such as thematic content analysis in order to decipher the data in more meaningful ways.

The Sony hacking incident began to unfold in mid-April 2011 when the PlayStation Network (PSN) was unexpectedly shut down. Millions of gamers around the world quickly became frustrated when access to the server remained closed with no clear indication of when the system would be operational again. It would not be until over a week later that Sony would admit that the closure of the PlayStation network had actually been in response to a massive security breach that had compromised the personal details (including credit card information) of over 70 million people. The response on Twitter was almost instantaneous — the tone of tweets on the Sony hashtag quickly changed from frustration to shocked anger. The hashtag increasingly became dominated by retweets of news feeds regarding the admission by Sony as Sony users spread the word to one another.

From the onset of this project, we suspected that the peak period of conversation in the Sony hashtag would be for the immediate period after the initial press statement released late Tuesday night, 27 April 2011 (US time). In order to confirm this hunch, I ran the explodetime.awk script over the original data set to separate the number of tweets according to day of posting. As can be seen in the chart below, there was definitely a significant jump in Twitter activity following the media release, particularly on Wednesday 28 April as more Tweeters woke up and heard the news.

Further, by breaking down the initial data set by hour, it was possible to isolate a specific 16 hour period when the use of the Sony hashtag was at its highest (see chart below).

It stood to reason that this timeframe would offer a perfect opportunity to examine the public’s reaction to a brand crisis. It stood to reason that this 16 hour period when Twitter conversation was at its most feverent would be the time when consumer emotions would also be at their highest. As such, this specific data set might provide an invaluable insight into the emotional reactions of consumers to a brand when something goes wrong. Some of the questions in our mind included: Exactly what issues were of most concern to the Sony hashtag community? How did they feel about the Sony brand itself at this moment? Who did they hold accountable (Sony or the hackers)? Would this event change their perceptions and interactions with the Sony brand in the future? However, before we could even begin to start answering these questions, I first had to create a more manageable data set.

Despite isolating the tweets in a specific 16 hour window, there were still over 78, 000 tweets. As a result, we ran the nthtweet.awk script over this data set to get a more manageable sample of every 20th tweet. It was now possible to conduct manual thematic analysis on a much more manageable data set of approximately 4000 tweets. In order to separate out the general spam and unrelated tweets regarding Sony products for sale from the crucial conversations specifically related to the Sony hacking incident, we applied four main overarching categories to separate out the tweets that would be the richest source of data on community responses to the incident–Discussion/Commentary (specifically on the Sony hacking incident), LOTE (Languages Other Than English), News (specifically on the Sony hacking incident), and Sony General/Other (designed to filter out unrelated Sony mentions, advertisements for Sony products and general spam).

The Discussion/Commentary tweets were then read closely, and we are now able to begin to identify some patterns in the themes and issues that people were concerned (or angry) about regarding the Sony hack. These were particularly interesting to read as, aside from the obvious financial concerns regarding stolen credit card information, in many cases the point of anger was at Sony simply not telling them as soon as they had identified the breach of security:

“I think it is pretty disgusting that Sony have waited 7 days to tell users that their Credit Card details may have been compromised”

It would have been interesting to see if Sony had been up front at the very beginning of the security breach with their users whether there would have been a different response/different issues of concern. This could be a significant finding for other companies with an online presence – always keep your consumers informed! Companies will be held accountable for what is perceived to be an attempted “cover-up”, even if this was not the case.

Other points of frustration are related to the inconvenience at having to change passwords and cancel credit cards (“Thanks Sony. Your incompetence has forced me to revise all my online account passwords”); the lack of up-to-date information from Sony regarding the hacking:

“Sony! Please state CATEGORICALLY whether credit card details have been stolen or not. Do it soon while you still have a reputation”

and not being able to access on-line gaming:

“My Kid and I BOTH are LIVID with Sony and their PLAYSTATION NETWORK…No online GAMING for LIKE A WEEK! Really screwed this one UP”.

The response from Sony on Twitter regarding the hacking incident was limited and did not appear to address any of these other separate issues. This in itself seemed to be another source of frustration as an increasing number of tweets in the Sony hashtag called for feedback and updates from Sony, or simply for them to clarify points of confusion and concern.

The next step in this research process will be to follow the same process for the #PSN (short for Playstation Network) hashtag over the same time period. This will give us some basis for understanding how the expressions and issues of concern differ among those users who are more likely to use the much more ‘insider’-oriented hashtag #PSN instead of or in addition to “Sony”, which is a much more generic keyword. In doing so, it might be possible to identify specific differences and similarities between more and less “invested” brand communities on Twitter.


About the Author

Tanya Nitins

Hi! My name is Tanya and here's a little bit about me: Dr Tanya Nitins is a Lecturer in Entertainment Industries at the Queensland University of Technology. Her research interests encompass entertainment, social media, new media, advertising, brand design and development. Her qualifications include a BA (1st class Honours), and PhD, both from Central Queensland University. Her PhD focused on analysing the practice of product placement in Hollywood films, namely the James Bond film series. Her first book on the history of product placement in the James Bond films and its cultural, industrial and historical developments is due out in November 2011. Dr Nitins is also a member of the CRC Smart Services research program at QUT and has been intrinsically involved in resarch projects focused on new media services and applications, locative media and building user communities.

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