The Streisand effect is a 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 an example of psychological reactance, wherein once people are aware that some information is being kept from them, their motivation to access and spread it is increased.
It is named after American entertainer Barbra Streisand, whose 2003 attempt to suppress photographs of her residence in Malibu, California, inadvertently drew further public attention to it. Similar attempts have been made, for example, in cease-and-desist letters to suppress files, websites, and even numbers. Instead of being suppressed, the information receives extensive publicity and media extensions such as videos and spoof songs, often being widely mirrored on the Internet or distributed on file-sharing networks.
Origin of the term
Mike Masnick of Techdirt coined the term in 2005 in relation to a holiday resort issuing a takedown notice to urinal.net (a site dedicated to photographs of urinals) over use of the resort's name.
How long is it going to take before lawyers realize that the simple act of trying to repress something they don't like online is likely to make it so that something that most people would never, ever see (like a photo of a urinal in some random beach resort) is now seen by many more people? Let's call it the Streisand Effect.
The term alluded to Barbra Streisand, who in 2003 had sued photographer Kenneth Adelman and Pictopia.com 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 greatly; more than 420,000 people visited the site over the following month. The lawsuit was dismissed and Streisand was ordered to pay Adelman's legal fees, which amounted to $155,567.
In November 2007, Tunisia blocked access to YouTube and Dailymotion after material was posted depicting Tunisian political prisoners. Activists and their supporters then started to link the location of then-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's palace on Google Earth to videos about civil liberties in general. The Economist said this "turned a low-key human-rights story into a fashionable global campaign".
The French intelligence agency DCRI's deletion of the French-language Wikipedia article about the military radio station of Pierre-sur-Haute resulted in the article temporarily becoming the most-viewed page on the French Wikipedia.
The government of South Africa stated their intention to ban the 2017 book The President's Keepers, detailing corruption within the government of Jacob Zuma. This caused sales of the book to spike dramatically causing the book to sell out within 24 hours before the ban would supposedly be put into effect. This made the book a national best seller and led to multiple reprints.
In March 2019, California Representative Devin Nunes filed a defamation lawsuit against Twitter and three users for US$250 million in damages. One user named in the lawsuit, the parody account @DevinCow, had 1,204 followers before the lawsuit. The number of followers of @DevinCow jumped to over 282,000 by the next day, and then increased to over 545,000 the day after, significantly in excess of the number of followers of Nunes.
In April 2007, a group of companies that used Advanced Access Content System (AACS) encryption issued cease-and-desist letters demanding that the system's numerical key be removed from several high-profile websites, including Digg. This led to the key's proliferation across other sites and chat rooms in various formats, with one commentator describing it as having become "the most famous number on the Internet". Within a month, the key had been reprinted on over 280,000 pages, had been printed on T-shirts and tattoos, and had appeared on YouTube in a song played over 45,000 times.
In September 2009, multi-national oil company Trafigura obtained a super-injunction to prevent The Guardian newspaper from reporting on an internal Trafigura investigation into the 2006 Ivory Coast toxic waste dump scandal. A super-injunction prevents reporting on even the existence of the injunction. Using parliamentary privilege, Labour MP Paul Farrelly referred to the super-injunction in a parliamentary question, and on October 12, 2009, The Guardian reported that it had been gagged from reporting on the parliamentary question, in violation of the 1689 Bill of Rights. Blogger Richard Wilson correctly identified the blocked question as referring to the Trafigura waste dump scandal, after which The Spectator suggested the same. Not long after, Trafigura began trending on Twitter, helped along by Stephen Fry's retweeting the story to his followers. Twitter users soon tracked down all details of the case, and by October 16, the super-injunction had been lifted and the report published.
In November 2012, Casey Movers, a Boston moving company, threatened to sue a woman in Hingham District Court for libel in response to a negative Yelp review. The woman's husband wrote a blog post about the situation, which was then picked up by Techdirt and Consumerist. By the end of the week, the company was reviewed by the Better Business Bureau, which later revoked its accreditation.
In December 2013, YouTube user ghostlyrich uploaded video proof that his Samsung Galaxy S4 battery had spontaneously caught fire. Samsung had demanded proof before honoring its warranty. Once Samsung learned of the YouTube video, it added additional conditions to its warranty, demanding ghostlyrich delete his YouTube video, promise not to upload similar material, officially absolve the company of all liability, waive his right to bring a lawsuit, and never make the terms of the agreement public. Samsung also demanded that a witness cosign the settlement proposal. When ghostlyrich shared Samsung's settlement proposal online, his original video drew 1.2 million views in one week.
In August 2014, it was reported that Union Street Guest House in Hudson, New York, had a policy that "there will be a $500 fine that will be deducted from your deposit for every negative review of USGH [Union Street Guest House] placed on any Internet site by anyone in your party and/or attending your wedding or event." The policy had been used in an attempt to suppress an unfavorable November 2013 Yelp review. Thousands of negative reviews of the policy were posted to Yelp and other review sites.
In September 2018, The Verge, an American technology news and media network operated by Vox Media, published an article titled "How to Build a Custom PC for Editing, Gaming or Coding" and uploaded a video to YouTube titled "How we Built a $2000 Custom Gaming PC", which was widely criticized for its numerous factual errors. In February 2019, Vox Media started issuing DMCA takedown notices to YouTube channels which posted content using clips from the video, most notably to technology channels Bitwit and ReviewTechUSA, bringing further attention to the video and the related content they attempted to suppress. After an outcry following the decision, YouTube reinstated these two videos, along with retracting the copyright "strikes" applied.
By other organizations
On December 5, 2008, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) added the English Wikipedia article about the 1976 Scorpions album Virgin Killer to a child pornography blacklist, considering the album's cover art "a potentially illegal indecent image of a child under the age of 18". The article quickly became one of the most popular pages on the site, and the publicity surrounding the IWF action resulted in the image being spread across other sites. The IWF was later reported on the BBC News website to have said "IWF's overriding objective is to minimise the availability of indecent images of children on the Internet, however, on this occasion our efforts have had the opposite effect". This effect was also noted by the IWF in its statement about the removal of the URL from the blacklist.
In June 2012, Argyll and Bute Council banned a nine-year-old primary school pupil from updating her blog, NeverSeconds, with photos of lunchtime meals served in the school's canteen. The blog, which was already popular, started receiving a large number of views due to the international media furor that followed the ban. Within days, the council reversed its decision under immense public pressure and scrutiny. After the reversal of the ban, the blog became more popular than it was before.
In May 2011, Premier League footballer Ryan Giggs sued Twitter after a user revealed that Giggs was the subject of an anonymous privacy injunction (informally referred to as a "super-injunction") that prevented the publication of details regarding an alleged affair with model and former Big Brother contestant Imogen Thomas. A blogger for the Forbes website observed that the British media, which were banned from breaking the terms of the injunction, had mocked the footballer for not understanding the effect. The Guardian subsequently posted a graph detailing—without naming the player—the number of references to the player's name against time, showing a large spike following the news that the player was seeking legal action.
Similar situations involving super-injunctions in England and Wales have occurred, one involving Jeremy Clarkson. Since January 2016 a celebrity (later revealed outside England and Wales to be David Furnish) used the injunction granted in PJS v News Group Newspapers to prevent media in England and Wales reporting events that have been featured in Scottish media and on the Internet.
A satirical play, Two Brothers and the Lions, was written by French playwright Hédi Tillette de Clermont-Tonnerre, about two wealthy Britons who live in a castle on the Channel Island of Brecqhou, "who become cold, selfish monsters in the heart of our democratic societies". In reality the billionaire Barclay brothers, owners of the Daily Telegraph newspaper amongst other holdings, live in a castle on the island; David Barclay sued the playwright in France for defamation and invasion of privacy, although the Barclays were not named in the play. The playwright's lawyer described the play as "a satirical fable on capitalism". Tillette de Clermont-Tonnerre acknowledged that the play was partly inspired by the lives of the brothers, but defended his right to freedom of expression and said the play had been commissioned to explore the issue of the continued existence of mediaeval Norman law in the Channel Islands, while ruminating on the nature and future of capitalism. In July 2019 Barclay lost the case, though was considering an appeal. The play had been obscure and only played in small theatres, though critically acclaimed; after the lawsuit performances were scheduled in cities across France.
The Guardian newspaper asserts that Bret Stephens, an American journalist, in 2019 achieved "as close to the perfect Streisand effect as one could imagine" by writing an email of complaint to David Karpf whose tweet describing Stephens as a "bedbug" had had insignificant interest; Stephens also sent the email to the provost of George Washington University where Karpf works as a professor of media and public affairs. Stephens was widely mocked on Twitter, deleted his Twitter account, and the story was picked up by the world's media.
The Streisand effect has been observed in relation to the right to be forgotten, as a litigant attempting to remove information from search engines risks the litigation itself being reported as valid, current news.
In popular culture
An episode of FX television series Atlanta is titled "The Streisand Effect". It follows rapper character Alfred as he attempts to suppress a beef with a social media star, his efforts only serving to increase the visibility of the rivalry.
- Banned in Boston
- Blowback (intelligence)
- Cobra effect
- Gag order
- Hydra effect
- List of eponymous laws
- Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority v. Anderson
- The History of Sexuality
- Red triangle (Channel 4)
- Strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP)
- Succès de scandale
- Unintended consequences
- Roko's basilisk
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The 'Streisand effect' is what happens when someone tries to suppress something and the opposite occurs. The act of suppressing it raises the profile, making it much more well known than it ever would have been.
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The episode is the latest example of a phenomenon known as the 'Streisand Effect.' Robert Siegel talks with Mike Masnick, CEO of Techdirt Inc., who coined the term.
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- Link includes lawsuit filings. Streisand was ordered to pay $177,107.54 in court and legal fees. The site has an image of the $155,567.04 check Streisand paid for Adelman's legal fees. Archived April 7, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
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WHAT do Barbra Streisand and the Tunisian president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, have in common? They both tried to block material they dislike from appearing on the internet.
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The ironic thing is, because they tried to quiet it down it's the most famous number on the Internet.
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The phenomenon takes its name from Barbra Streisand, who made her own ill-fated attempt at reining in the Web in 2003. That's when environmental activist Kenneth Adelman posted aerial photos of Streisand's Malibu beach house on his Web site as part of an environmental survey, and she responded by suing him for $50 million. Until the lawsuit, few people had spotted Streisand's house, Adelman says—but the lawsuit brought more than a million visitors to Adelman's Web site, he estimates. Streisand's case was dismissed, and Adelman's photo was picked up by the Associated Press and reprinted in newspapers around the world.
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Apparently, though, CTB's lawyers have not heard of the "Streisand effect".
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