The Streisand Effect


The Streisand effect is the phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely, usually facilitated by the Internet.

It is named after American entertainer Barbra Streisand, whose attempt in 2003 to suppress photographs of her residence in Malibu, California, inadvertently generated further publicity. Similar attempts have been made, for example, in cease-and-desist letters, to suppress numbers, files and websites. Instead of being suppressed, the information receives extensive publicity and media extensions such as videos and spoof songs, often being widely mirrored across the Internet or distributed on file-sharing networks.

The photograph which Streisand tried to ban.
The photograph which Streisand tried to ban.

Mike Masnick of Techdirt coined the term after Streisand unsuccessfully sued photographer Kenneth Adelman and for violation of privacy. The US$50 million lawsuit endeavored to remove an aerial photograph of Streisand’s mansion from the publicly available collection of 12,000 California coastline photographs. Adelman photographed the beachfront property to document coastal erosion as part of the California Coastal Records Project, which was intended to influence government policymakers.Before Streisand filed her lawsuit, “Image 3850” had been downloaded from Adelman’s website only six times; two of those downloads were by Streisand’s attorneys. As a result of the case, public knowledge of the picture increased substantially; more than 420,000 people visited the site over the following month. (source, Wikipedia)

There are so many examples of this in everyday life.

The first one which sprang to mind was footballer Ryan Giggs and the super-injunction against newspapers planning to report on his infidelity. When the super-injunction became known, everyone was speculating who it was, with his name topping the polls. This fired the flames of public interest so something which could have happened more or less under the radar ended up being front-page news.

The second one would be any music which is banned – the ‘forbidden fruit’ aspect makes it suddenly more attractive and worthy of attention. Newspapers write about it and it is shared on the internet, bringing it to the forefront whereas it may have disappeared without a trace if it had been left alone.

The third one would probably be the John Lewis list which led to the huge MP expense scandal in the UK in 2009.  The Telegraph group made a request for the release of details of MPs’ expenses claims (the so called John Lewis list). This was granted. The House of Commons immediately challenged the decision on the grounds that it was intrusive. This irritated the media and made them even more keen to find out what was on the list, so when they were finally granted access to this information they really went to town and blew the scandal up to catastrophic proportions. The investigated it right down to an MP who owed the Parliament £4.

Not quite related to this but in the same general area – why do politicians deny things when they have done something wrong? The denial just makes it worse for them in the long run because the issue blows up out of all proportion, makes the media dig even harder and find out the truth anyway. Why don’t they just admit the truth, take their lumps and move on?

Take Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. If he had just said ‘yes I did it. I was wrong’ it would have died down far quicker than it did when he denied it and then ended up losing credibility AND being impeached AND being a subject of a media hoohaa. Richard Nixon, John Profumo, Silvio Berlusconi, Gareth Evans – the list is endless.

In Sweden a few years ago there was a scandal where the person in charge of crisis preparedness (she happened to be right hand man to the Prime Minister) was reported to be passed out drunk in a pub on a night she was on call. Given that Sweden had just lost almost 1000 of its citizens in the tsunami, this was a sensitive topic and widely covered by the media. Of course everyone concerned energetically denied all claims. For four days. Until the newspaper which broke the story produced the receipts – for the booze that she and her drinking partner had consumed. The drinking partner happened to be a journalist working for the paper who broke the story. She had to resign and ended up witnessing before the Parliamentary Committee on the Constitution. The journalist went into so-called quarantine but was back at the Foreign Ministry two days later. If she had just admitted it her reputation could have been saved.

Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

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