The Streisand effect is a phenomenon that occurs when an attempt to hide, remove, or censor information has the unintended consequence of increasing awareness of that information, often via the Internet. It is named after American entertainer Barbra Streisand, whose attempt to suppress the California Coastal Records Project photograph of her residence in Malibu, California, taken to document California coastal erosion, inadvertently drew greater attention to it in 2003.
Attempts to suppress information are often made through cease-and-desist letters, but instead of being suppressed, the information receives extensive publicity, as well as media extensions such as videos and spoof songs, which can be mirrored on the Internet or distributed on file-sharing networks.
The Streisand effect is an example of psychological reactance, wherein once people are aware that some information is being kept from them, they are significantly more motivated to access and spread that information.
In some cases taking out a legal injunction—or even a "super-injunction", whose mere existence may not be reported—prohibiting something being published ultimately leads to much increased publicity; there are examples below of this effect relating to companies and individuals.
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 then-President 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 February 2018, Anne Applebaum wrote in The Washington Post about the Polish Holocaust law, which would have criminalized blaming Poles for the Holocaust. She argued that the Streisand effect would draw more attention to aspects of history that the Polish government preferred to suppress.
A 2018 study of millions of individual responses of Chinese social media users found that sudden censorship of information by the Chinese government and its affiliates often led to mass backlashes, including newfound popularity of VPNs and the subsequent reviewing of entire topic lists on which censored subjects appear. Other researchers found that the backlash tended to result in permanent changes to political attitudes and behaviors.
A 2019 study of political imprisonment by the government of Saudi Arabia found that while the incarceration tended to deter individual dissidents from further dissent, it strongly emboldened their social media followers, led to a sharp increase in calls for political reform, and resulted in an increase in online dissent and physical in-person protests overall, including criticism of the ruling family and calls for regime change. Such repression draws public attention to the imprisoned dissidents and their causes, and did not deter other prominent figures in Saudi Arabia from continuing to dissent online.
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 (Name: Devin Nunes' cow), had 1,200 followers before the lawsuit. The number of followers of @DevinCow soon jumped to 600,000.
In August 2020, it was reported that the Chinese government had blanked out parts of its Baidu mapping platform, and that this could be used to find a network of buildings bearing hallmarks of prisons and internment camps.
In October 2020, the New York Post published emails purporting to be from a laptop owned by Presidential candidate Joe Biden's son Hunter Biden, detailing an alleged corruption scheme. In response, Twitter blocked the story from their platform and locked the accounts of those who shared a link to the article, including the New York Post's own Twitter account, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, among others. Researchers at MIT cited the increase of 5.5 thousand shares every 15 minutes to about 10 thousand shares shortly after Twitter censored the story as evidence of the Streisand Effect nearly doubling the attention the story received.
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 128-bit (16-byte) numerical key (represented in hexadecimal as 09 F9 11 02 9D 74 E3 5B D8 41 56 C5 63 56 88 C0) be removed from several high-profile websites, including Digg. With the numerical key and some software, it was possible to decrypt the video content on HD-DVDs. 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 instructions that would have been harmful or dangerous to both the computer and user if followed, and its numerous factual errors, such as claiming anti-vibration pads were for electrical insulation and confusing zip ties with tweezers. 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.
On 20 February 2020, Apple filed a legal complaint against the sales of the German-language book App Store Confidential, written by a former German App Store manager, Tom Sadowski. Apple cited confidential business information as the reason for requesting the sales ban. However, the publicity brought on by the media caused the book to reach number two on the Amazon bestseller list in Germany. The book was soon on its second print run.
In October 2020, the RIAA filed a DMCA takedown against the youtube-dl repository on GitHub resulting in the repository and several forks being taken down. Within days, hundreds of forks of the repository appeared on GitHub.
In 2021, a Reddit moderator was banned after posting a Spectator article that made a passing mention of Aimee Challenor, who had recently been hired at the company. This led to an outcry and more posts mentioning Challenor herself. Reddit began banning accounts that discussed Challenor or mentioned her name in any way or form. Nearly 600 subreddits then went private in protest of the censorship.
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 in Scotland 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. Dan Sabbagh from 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 British people 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. 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, a political scientist 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 2019 author Andrew Seidel sent a copy of his book The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American to conservative evangelical pastor Greg Locke in the hope of starting a conversation about the issues discussed in it. Locke said that he had no intention of reading the book, and burnt it, posting video of the burning on his social media accounts. Response to the video included many replies expressing the intention to purchase and read the book and to donate copies to libraries.
- 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
- McLibel case
- Reactance (psychology)
- Red triangle (Channel 4)
- Royal Family (film)
- Strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP)
- Succès de scandale
- Unintended consequences
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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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Another unintended consequence of this move could be that it extends the kerfuffle over Ms. Abdul's behavior rather than quelling it. Mr. Nguyen called this the 'Barbra Streisand effect', referring to that actress's insistence that paparazzi photos of her mansion not be used
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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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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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