The rich and powerful bullies of the world — governments, corporations, celebrities, etc. — have lots of creative ways to control the public's access to information, especially when that information makes them look bad: intimidation, bans, bribery or straight-up censorship. But every once in a while, an especially clumsy censorship effort backfires and the situation goes from bad to much, much worse.
Take the case of Barbra Streisand, award-winning actress, singer and owner of a sprawling mega-mansion near the wealthy coastal enclave of Malibu, California. Back in 2003, Streisand sued a photographer named Kenneth Adelman because he refused to delete a photo of her Malibu mansion from an online project that tracked erosion on the California coastline. Adelman wasn't a paparazzo trying to snag a shot of Babs in her bathing suit. He was documenting an important environmental issue.
Streisand obviously felt that her privacy had been violated, so she took Adelman to court for $50 million in damages. Yup, $50 million for one online photo. The irony was that before Streisand took Adelman to court, the online image of her house had been downloaded a grand total of six times, twice by her own lawyers. But after the media caught wind of Babs' outrageous $50 million lawsuit, the image was downloaded 420,000 times in just a month and publicized around the world. (For an added kick in the teeth, the judge dismissed the case.)
Streisand wasn't the first would-be censor to get burned by her own attempt to repress information, but her name became indelibly attached to the phenomena when the TechDirt blogger Mike Masnick jokingly labeled the backfire the "Streisand effect."
"Nobody had paid much attention to the whole thing until the lawsuit, which I'm sure Streisand wishes she had never undertaken," says Sue Curry Jansen, professor emeritus of media and communications at Muhlenberg College, who co-authored a 2015 paper about the curious dynamics of the Streisand effect.
The Streisand effect is a product of public outrage and blowback over perceived censorship or any attempt by someone with power to repress free speech. As Streisand's lawsuit shows, a lot of supposedly "dangerous" information wouldn't likely draw much attention if left uncensored, but the very act of trying to repress it creates public outrage, which ends up shining a far brighter light on the information in the process. Not to mention that people are naturally curious about anything that is being covered-up or attempted to be suppressed. "Why is this information being hidden?" we wonder.
It's also been shown that banning books or blocking access to certain websites only serves to increase public demand for the censored information. One study from 2018 found that China's attempts to block access to sites like Twitter and Facebook prompted millions of otherwise apolitical citizens to download VPN software to evade the censors and access the sites.
Poetic Justice in Action
In their paper, Jansen and her co-author Brian Martin of the University of Wollongong in Australia highlight some truly shining examples of the Streisand effect at work, from global corporations to grade-school cafeterias:
The fast food giant McDonald's made a huge mistake in the 1990s when it sued two volunteers with the activist organization London Greenpeace for a street pamphlet they wrote called, "What's Wrong with McDonald's?" The trial, which the British press dubbed "McLibel," became the longest-running civil trial in British history and handed critics of McDonald's a media bullhorn for publicizing the chain's exploitative advertising, low pay and unhealthy food. And just like Streisand, McDonald's ended up losing the lawsuit.
Fox News also fell victim to the Streisand effect the same year that Streisand shot herself in the proverbial foot. In 2003, the cable news network sued Al Franken — then a comedian and actor, not yet a senator — for copyright infringement over his anti-conservative book, "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right." Fox News alleged that the phrase "Fair and Balanced" was its intellectual property, but a judge disagreed. Not only did Fox News lose the case, but the free publicity shot Franken's book to the top of the bestseller list.
One of the funniest/saddest examples of the Streisand effect took place in Scotland in 2012, when a 9-year-old schoolgirl Martha Payne began taking pictures of her school cafeteria lunches and writing about them on her personal blog. When the chef and TV personality Jamie Oliver tweeted about Payne’s blog, the site received 3 million hits in just two months. The local town council, fearing that the grade-schooler was making them look stupid, did something even stupider and banned her from taking photos at school. Of course, Payne blogged about the ban, too, which made international news. The town council publicly apologized and removed the ban.
As amusing as these examples are, Jansen laments that most censorship efforts are successful. They work precisely because we never hear about them.
"That's the way power works," says Jansen. "For example, the non-disclosure agreements that employees have to sign to work at many corporations. You can know something really bad is going on, but you can't tell anyone. Not only will you be fired, but you'll be sued."
Even if a powerful person or entity is caught trying to silence a critic or hide a dirty secret, there's a whole crisis management playbook to diffuse public outcry. Jansen and Martin call it "outrage management."
In their paper, they list five techniques that censors use to discredit and silence critics:
- Covering up the action
- Devaluing the target
- Reinterpreting events by lying, minimizing consequences, blaming others and using favorable framing
- Using official channels to give an appearance of justice
- Intimidating or rewarding people involved
"There are PR people who are very good at doing this kind of thing," says Jansen. "They set up listening sessions with people who are objecting to something, then single out one or two people and put them on a 'committee.' Sometimes they even overtly bribe people with some kind of honorific and then proceed with whatever they intended to do in the first place."
The Streisand Effect Depends on Free Speech and Press
The Streisand effect can be an effective check on censorship and the misuse of power to bully critics into silence, but only if the act of censorship is dragged into the light by a free and unfettered press. None of the examples we cited above, including Streisand's, would have happened if not for journalists picking up the stories and bringing them to the public's attention.
Unfortunately, the effectiveness of the media as a check on censorship has taken a hit during the "fake news" era. If politicians and other people in power can dismiss news stories that make them look bad as biased or false, then the power of the Streisand effect dries up.
"That's a real issue," says Jansen. "The whole sense of what is the 'truth' has been undermined quite deliberately."