See how the news shapes our beliefs about the North Korea hack

Summary:  Hot stories like North Korea’s (alleged) attack on Sony show how the government officials and journalists shape our opinions. Open source information and analysis can provide alternative perspectives, helping us better understand our world. But this, by itself, provides only better entertainment unless we act upon it. We can learn to do better by learning from these events, a necessity for those seeking to reform America from the plutocracy it’s becoming. This is the 4th post in this series about the Sony hack; see links to the others at the end.

The Information Age offers much to mankind, and I would like to think that we will rise to the challenges it presents. But it is vital to remember that information — in the sense of raw data — is not knowledge, that knowledge is not wisdom, and that wisdom is not foresight. But information is the first essential step to all of these.

— Sir Arthur C. Clarke interviewed by Nalaka Gunawardene, once posted at OneWorld, 5 December 2003



  1. Why the government wins these debates
  2. Journalists struggle to understand the hack
  3. Sources of useful information
  4. Reminders about the big picture
  5. For More Information
  6. Better networks are the first step to reform

(1)  Why the government wins these debates


“I have seen too many situations where government officials claimed a high degree of confidence as to the source, intent, and scope of an attack, and it turned out they were wrong on every aspect of it. That is, they were often wrong, but never in doubt.”

— A former Justice Department official involved with critical infrastructure protection, quoted in the NAS study “Technology, Policy, Law, and Ethics Regarding U.S. Acquisition and Use of Cyberattack Capabilities” (2009)

Open source provides an alternative to government pronouncements, but it’s useless information since we have no mechanisms to use it.

US experts tend to treat US government official’s words — even when anonymous — as gospel. National security and geopolitical experts are especially obedient (as economists are to the Fed, for similar reasons). That’s important, since experts provide the analysis which the news media features to explain events. As we see in other issues (e.g., climate change from 1989 until after 2010), journalists acts as gatekeepers to the mass mind. They filter what we learn to maintain the narrative. No matter how qualified the expert, journalists will mute voices dissenting from the narrative — unless powerful political interests intervene (as the GOP has, highlighting the views of skeptical scientists in the climate wars).

The government wins because they overwhelm the news flow, and confusion about complex matters forces people to trust somebody. And a majority reliably will decide to do nothing, and let the government handle it. Our only recourse is to find people whom we can trust for reliable information and analysis, no matter how unpalatable.

(2)  Journalists struggle to understand the hack


Here are some of the most interesting bits from the flood of propaganda, noise, and information about the Sony hack.

Here’s a fascinating dissection of an early New York Times story about the hack, by the pseudonymous “Jericho”: “Anatomy of a NYT Piece on the Sony Hack and Attribution“, 19 December 2014. It shows the skill journalists use to create the shiny narratives that package information for us.

Was North Korea behind the Sony hack? Not all experts agree.“, Christian Science Monitor, 22 December 2014 —  “Some cyber specialists aren’t convinced that North Korea was the culprit. One critic calls the the FBI’s evidence ‘weak’ and ‘at best, speculation.’ Others back the FBI claims.” Pro-FBI article pretending to be skeptical.

An excellent and balanced follow-up by Kim Zetter to her first article: “Experts Are Still Divided on Whether North Korea Is Behind Sony Attack“, Wired, 23 December 2014

The New York Times shifts the debate to the government’s side: “When Does a Cyberattack Warrant a Military Response?“, 23 December 2014. US foreign policy has become largely a question of who we attack next, and how.


Did North Korea really hack Sony?“, VOX, 23 December 2014 — “Yet there are still reasons to suspect that North Korea played a role in the attacks.” Nice example of motivated reasoning seeking ways to justify predetermined belief.

North Korea May Have Had Help From the Hackers Who Hit Sony in 2011“, Bloomberg, 23 December 2014 — They assume that a private company like IntelCrawler has no government connects. That’s a dubious assumption.

Nice framing! Anyone who disagrees with the approved narrative is a “skeptic” (allusion to the climate skeptics to herd liberals into the pen). “Despite What the Cyber Skeptics Say, North Korea Is Behind the Sony Hack“, Brandon Valeriano (senior lecturer, U of Glasgow), Slate, 23 December 2014 — Ignores most of the “skeptics” analysis. Gives much credence to unknown government secret info.

Typically solid long-form journalism from Quartz: “Why it’s so hard to tell if the Sony hack was North Korea’s doing“, Leo Mirani, Quartz, 23 December 2014

(3)  Sources of reliable information

A previous post linked to experts’ analysis of the hack. For background information about cyberwar there is much useful, although dense, information available if you know where to look (which journalists seldom tell you).



Perhaps the best starting point is this NAS study “Technology, Policy, Law, and Ethics Regarding U.S. Acquisition and Use of Cyberattack Capabilities” (2009).

Much easier for the layperson is this series at Dark Matters by Edwin Covert (bio here): “Unraveling the Complexities of Cyber Terrorism“, “Selling Fear: How Cyber Terrorism is Being Portrayed“, “Unraveling the Complexities of Cyber Terrorism“, and “Consequences of Overstating the Cyber Terrorism Threat“.  Dark Matters is on the website of Norse, a global Tier 1 carrier-grade network.

An easier introduction for laypeople is the articles by Marcus Ranum on the FM website, brief and clear.

(4)  Reminders about the big picture


When following any hot story — protests about police violence or North Korea’s attack on Sony — remember these two key frames.

(a)  The US government lies often, easily, without consequences. This bodyguard of lies protects the regime from our anger. It’s an opiate of the people, muting our awareness of how American runs and in whose interest. Journalists are polite and seldom describe even the most outlandish and self-serving statements by government officials (even if speaking anonymously and so suspiciously) — unless the public has turned against them.

(b)  The US public consists of three parts. Journalists write news stories to one of the latter two groups (quite different marketing). The first group has its own private networks.

  1. The inner party who run things. Loyal to the regime (the 1%’s oligarchy), educated, networked, decision-makers.
  2. The outer party: the white collars who do much of the work. Educated, most often interested in politics as entertainment, passive.
  3. The proles: the blue collars and the poor: easily aroused into anarchic activity, tribal in their loyalties, watching politics much the same way they watch sports.

A note from our past, a letter by Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 20 December 1787:

And say, finally, whether peace is best preserved by giving energy to the government or information to the people. This last is the most certain and the most legitimate engine of government. Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. Enable them to see that it is their interest to preserve peace and order, and they will preserve them. And it requires no very high degree of education to convince them of this. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.

(5)  For More Information


(a)  Other posts in this series:

  1. Another day, another campaign of fearmongering in America: North Korea’s cyberattack on Sony., 18 December 2014
  2. The FBI told their story about North Korea attacking Sony. Before we retaliate, read what they didn’t tell you., 20 December 2014
  3. Why do we believe, when the government lies to us so often? When we change, the government also will change., 22 December 2014

(b)  All posts about cyberwar, cybercrime, and cyberterrorism.

(6)  Better networks are the first step to reform

The first step to change are people willing to work together. It’s always the network — the network of people — that matters.





3 thoughts on “See how the news shapes our beliefs about the North Korea hack”

  1. You mention that I ignore most of the analysis against the idea that North Korea committed the hack. Exactly what evidence do I ignore that I should have covered? I find the debate a bit misleading because there really is no information that counters the idea that North Korea did this beyond the point that the US government lies (you don’t seem to focus on any evidence here). Problem is, why would the US government lie in this case? What incentive do they have? In fact, by saying that NK did this they are committed to react in some way, a policy is generally counterproductive when dealing with NK.

    1. Brandon,

      “… why would the US government lie in this case? What incentive do they have? … by saying that NK did this they are committed to react in some way, a policy is generally counterproductive when dealing with NK.”

      (1) Painting North Korea as a bad guy, part of the Axis of Evil, fits with the standard post-WWII policy of threat-inflation. Keep America fearful for foreign foes. The 3rd post in this series discussed this history: Why do we believe, when the government lies to us so often? When we change, the government also will change.

      (2) You assume that the US has a rational policy of influencing other nations, especially rivals and foes. I see little evidence of that. Quite often our foreign policy reflects domestic political needs — such as allowing our leaders to posture as strongmen, and especially to justify trillion-dollar military spending (broadly defined).

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