In our hyper-connected online world, trying to suppress information can often backfire in spectacular fashion. This unintended consequence even has a name: the Streisand Effect. And it has produced some truly hilarious and downright bizarre outcomes when individuals, companies, and even governments try to censor content on the internet.
When Censorship Attempts Go Wrong
The Streisand Effect is named after an infamous 2003 incident involving the renowned singer Barbra Streisand. Streisand took offense to an aerial photograph included in a collection of 12,000 images documenting California coastal erosion. The innocuous photo simply showed her Malibu cliff-top mansion. But its inclusion in the publicly available records angered Streisand. So she sued the photographer for $50 million, demanding the image be removed on privacy grounds.
Prior to this legal action, the photo of Streisand's house had been downloaded just six times. But the resulting media coverage led over 420,000 people to visit the collection's website in the following month, eager to see the image Streisand didn't want them to see. Her heavy-handed efforts completely backfired, achieving the complete opposite of her aims and giving rise to the term "The Streisand Effect."This is the essence of the Streisand Effect. When censorship is attempted, the public's interest is piqued, even those who might not have been interested in the topic otherwise. We assume the censored content contains something scandalous, titillating, or embarrassing, and this motivates us to actively seek it out. The act of suppressing information suggests it's valuable and makes us want to uncover, share, and repost it more widely out of defiance.
Since Streisand's debacle, the internet has unleashed the effect on a much grander scale, often with hilarious consequences. For instance:
- Beyonce's publicist demanded BuzzFeed remove unflattering shots of her 2013 Superbowl show. But this simply spread the photos further, and they remain infamous a decade later.
- When French intelligence tried deleting Wikipedia's article on a military radio station, it became the site's most popular page.
- When Trafigura, a multi-national oil company, tried preventing reporting on their toxic waste dumping by taking out a "super-injunction," it just led to mass public interest and Twitter outrage.
- The Chinese government's attempts to ban images of Pooh Bear after memes comparing the character to President Xi Jinping went viral completely failed, with Pooh becoming a symbol of political dissent.
- When Putin unsuccessfully tried to block videos exposing Russian oligarchs' opulent palace, the clips were viewed over 100 million times, fueling major protests.
While most examples involve celebrities, corporations, and politicians, everyday social media users can also experience smaller scale Streisand Effects. Firing off legal threats and takedown notices can make minor issues spiral into much bigger deals. If the photo or content in question is unlikely to persist or gain much traction, it's often wiser to ignore it rather than feed publicity and interest in it with a heavy-handed response.
Why Does It Happen? A Look at the Psychology
What explains this paradoxical reaction whereby suppressing something increases its prominence? The root cause is psychological reactance — our instinctive response when we feel our freedoms are being curtailed.
Attempted censorship implies certain information is being deliberately kept from us. This threatens our desire for autonomy and freedom of information. So, we perceive suppressed content as having high value worth uncovering. We retaliate by asserting our independence and by seeking and spreading the restricted material. This reaction is often magnified when the person or company is in a position of power or high social or financial status.
This also explains why the effect reverses once information flows freely again. Unrestricted access often quells the rebellious instincts driving sharing, particularly on the internet, where attention spans are often quite short and content cycles are often stunningly quick.
Understanding this psychology is key to avoiding the unintended consequences of heavy-handed responses. Reactance makes suppressed photos irresistible. Strategic non-intervention often starves them of oxygen more than reactive takedowns.
The Implications for Image Consumption and Sharing
The Streisand Effect has profound implications for how we consume and share visual content online today. With photos and videos zipping constantly through social networks and messaging apps, the effect is amplified to an unprecedented degree and can happen in lightning-fast fashion.
Attempting to suppress embarrassing or unfavorable images is now almost guaranteed to have the opposite outcome under the right circumstances. Even if successfully removed from one platform, the content will pop back up elsewhere, often reaching a far bigger audience as a result. The futility of whack-a-mole style censorship is more evident than ever. For example, in 2020, video emerged showing Joel Michael Singer, drunk and belligerent, headbutting a restaurant manager in Florida before being tackled and subdued. When Singer's legal team tried forcing removals of the viral video showing the assault, it only spread the footage further across social media platforms through defiant reposts and mirrors. Singer's aggressive takedown efforts failed to suppress the embarrassing incident and instead cemented his notoriety as "headbutt guy." The incident still pops up quite frequently years later, as the Streisand Effect is often amplified when there is a perceived injustice added to the mix. Aggressive legal threats and takedown tactics tend to inflame public opinion and spark activism rather than achieve their aims. The public resents perceived abuses of power and will rally around underdog causes.
For better or worse, the inherent design of the social web makes suppression virtually impossible. User autonomy is maximized, authority minimized. Centralized channels of distribution have fragmented into a loose peer-to-peer sharing ecosystem that prevents easy control of the dissemination of media. In this environment, heavy-handed control and censorship breed resistance and reinforce the value of visual artifacts deemed controversial. Attempts to regulate resonate with the public as authoritarian overreach. On the other hand, this presents challenges for protecting privacy and enforcing legitimate usage rights. For example, in 2014, nude photos of several celebrities were leaked after a major hack, and those celebrities experienced tremendous difficulty in addressing the situation without drawing further attention to it, eventually prompting the FBI to investigate.
From politics to popular culture, stories of attempted visual censorship gone awry will only multiply as sharing continues growing. Individuals as well as companies and institutions will have to adapt to this new reality or pay the price in unintended consequences. The public's appetite for prohibited imagery appears insatiable, often terrifingly so.
The Streisand Effect shows how our distributed, crowd-powered online ecosystem can rarely be controlled even by the rich and powerful. Attempted censorship is often futile and frequently achieves the exact opposite result than intended. It's quite the interesting phenomenon in a world where images and video are shared more often than ever.
Lead image by Alan Light, used under Creative Commons License.