The Streisand Effect Proves When You Try to Hide Something on the Web, Everyone Sees It
Plot twist: Powerful people now exploit this phenomenon by deliberately putting out content that will be censored — to maximize outreach.
In February 2013, when Beyoncé performed at the Super Bowl, Buzzfeed, as Buzzfeed does, compiled an article consisting of screen captures and gifs of the performance’s “fiercest moments.” Shortly after, Beyoncé’s publicist contacted them and asked them to remove some of the more “unflattering photos,” itemizing what they thought were the “worst ones.” Buzzfeed, as Buzzfeed does, wrote a second article: “The Unflattering Photos Beyoncé’s Publicist Doesn’t Want You To See,” which consisted of the letter and only the “unflattering” photos.
Several media outlets picked it up including the Huffington Post, Marie Claire, The Telegraph and TechDirt. As news of this attempt at censorship and the second Buzzfeed article spread through the day, photoshopped versions of the picture started appearing on message boards and social media platforms. ‘Unflattering Beyoncé’ saw a spike in Google search volume and eventually even became a meme — with its own weightlifter, Incredible Hulk, and wrestler versions. Queen B, in an attempt to hide pictures she didn’t like, inadvertently fell prey to the Streisand Effect.
Named after American singer and actress Barbara Streisand, the effect is an organic, unintended consequence of trying to suppress a piece of information on the internet — censorship efforts can backfire, leading to more people seeking out the information than they would have, had the would-be censor not tried to have it removed. This was first called the Streisand Effect by Techdirt’s Mike Masnick in reference to attempts by Streisand to suppress aerial photos of her sprawling Malibu beach house in 2003. The image featured in the public California Coastal Records Project (CCRP) documenting coastal erosion in California. Streisand’s lawyers sued CCRP for US$50 million on the grounds that the photograph invaded her privacy. Before the media caught wind of the lawsuit, the photo of Streisand’s beach house had been downloaded from photographer Kenneth Adelman’s website only six times; after the case hit the press, the site received more than 420,000 visitors the following month — far more than would otherwise even go to the CCRP’s website. The judge eventually threw the case out, and Streisand’s beach house was more infamous than it would have been had she just ignored it.
Psychologically, people want what they can’t have. When there’s a piece of information out there that they think should not be hidden — especially if they know there have been efforts to have it removed — people will make a copy and put it out on the internet. And then, the replication is impossible to stop. Every time a web server gains a new file, “spiders” or search engine crawlers go looking for what’s new on the web and update the web’s cache with the new file.
“The problem for anyone trying to suppress information is that the internet is the world’s biggest and most efficient copying machine. Put a document on to a connected machine and it will propagate,” Charles Arthur writes in The Guardian. And once it propagates, it’s impossible to get out of the spotlight. “The real enemy of censorship is digitization,” Arthur notes.
No one is immune to it — not even Queen B — simply because it’s not a planned movement to uphold freedom of speech. And because it’s not planned, it can’t be thwarted by law, power, or money. It is a type of unintended consequence, a term used in the social sciences for an unforeseen and unintended outcome of a purposeful action — in this case, a negative outcome.
The Pirate Bay, a website filled with pirated copies of movies, music, video games, and TV shows, went from being a small website famous among niche groups to becoming a household name with millions of people visiting the website after a British lawsuit against it to shut it down brought more than 12 million people to the site, according to the site’s blog. Closer home, in 2012, an unknown businessman called Ravi Srinivasan in India tweeted that one Karti Chidambaram, son of the then-ruling Congress’ P Chidambaram, had amassed a lot of wealth illegally. The politician filed an FIR, and the police arrested the businessman the next morning. But this had the reverse effect: Srinivasan became a hero on prime-time television and other media; his Twitter following grew from 16 to 2,300 in 48 hours; and the tweet, originally seen only by a few, reached hundreds of thousands, via television, newspapers and social media.
More famously, in 2016, the police tried to have comedian Tanmay Bhatt’s Snapchat video mocking cricket icon Sachin Tendulkar and Bollywood singer Lata Mangeshkar removed. Unlike in the U.S., Snapchat wasn’t as popular in India then. The offending video would probably have had only a few views, but for the explosive backlash toward the police’s attempts to remove it, which was then amplified by mainstream media. People further shared this coverage on more established social media platforms with links to local and global news reports; the video ended up getting hundreds of thousands of views.
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As unintended as it might be, groups and people across the political spectrum have, over the years, learned how to ‘game’ the Streisand Effect, especially in the West. Parker Malloy of Media Matters explains how it works: “A group or candidate will run an inflammatory ad that doesn’t meet a platform’s guidelines and wait for it to be pulled, which then provides fresh fodder for conservative media outlets” that are more than happy to amplify even the smallest of slights.
Malloy cites Marsha Blackburn as an example: when she ran for the U.S. Senate, “she tried to promote an ad on Twitter in which she said, ‘I fought Planned Parenthood and we stopped the sale of baby body parts’ — parroting a discredited right-wing lie about Planned Parenthood. Twitter pulled the ad because it violated the platform’s rules around promoted content ‘likely to evoke a strong negative reaction,’ but that only resulted in her message getting even more media coverage than it would have on Twitter alone.” Right-wing and conservative outlets including Breitbart, Fox News, and Washington Examiner called Twitter biased. Outlets including The Washington Post and The Associated Press covered the story as well. Twitter responded to the backlash by reversing its ruling — which lent the ad a fresh round of publicity. But this exploitation is not limited only to politicians or social media.
Each year, for decades now, PETA submits a controversial ad to the U.S. Superbowl for a place in its prestigious and lucrative interval advertisement spots; each year, the network airing the game rejects it — but that’s exactly what PETA wants. “This strategy of submitting Super Bowl ads without a chance of getting approved has worked out pretty well for the animal rights organization, which even has a page on its website dedicated to ads that were deemed ‘too hot for the big game,'” Malloy writes. The group’s 2016 ad — labeled ‘Not Safe For Work’ — has more than 59 million views on YouTube and mentions in outlets including HuffPost and Business Insider. After all, as Malloy rhetorically asks, “why pay millions of dollars for a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl if you can get your message out to tens of millions of people for free?”
But organizations are slowly catching on to this PR trick of exploiting the Streisand effect — and putting an end to it. Twitter and Google recently announced that it will no longer allow political ads on the platform. If no political ads are allowed as a policy, then the deliberately controversial ones will not even see the light of day in the first place, which means these publishing platforms won’t have to hand out rejections that serve as fodder for the media and people across social media platforms. It seems CEO Jack Dorsey has finally realized that the only way out of the people and groups counter-exploiting the Streisand Effect is by stepping out of the game, because the way the web is structured — once it’s out there, it’s impossible to contain it.
Pallavi Prasad is The Swaddle's Features Editor. When she isn't fighting for gender justice and being righteous, you can find her dabbling in street and sports photography, reading philosophy, drowning in green tea, and procrastinating on doing the dishes.