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“”That Spanish man is Mario Costeja Gonzalez. This is his photo, which was on an article from the New York Times about his crusade to remove links mentioning his debts from 1998. In doing so, he is now world famous for being that Spanish guy with debts from 1998. The only thing I know about him is the only thing he didn't want me to know.
|—John Oliver |
The Streisand effect is an Internet-coined name (although the effect predates the popular usage of the Internet) for a phenomenon whereby an attempt to censor or gag a report has led to great interest in the story or work that nobody would have noticed had they not attempted to ban or censor it in the first place.
Some people have proposed that it be called Streisand's Law on account of how inevitable the effect is.
The term was coined in 2005 by Mike Masnick, founder of the Techdirt website after an incident that started in February, 2003, when Barbra Streisand's lawyers sent a cease and desist letter to the California Coastal Records Project regarding the inclusion of a photo of her Malibu beach house on its website. When the website operators rejected that letter and a followup letter, Babs sued. On 3 December 2003, the Los Angeles Superior Court issued a statement that they were dismissing the suit.
The previously not-famous CCRP website includes more than 12,000 overlapping aerial photos of the entire California coastline (with the exception of the area around Vandenberg Air Force Base), plus a collection of about 55,000 additional photos that currently date back to 1972.
Blogs and injunctions
In the modern world of blogs, there are no shortages of such examples as blogs have become a main means whereby people speak out, and often have a network of friends or collaborators just waiting to get pissed off — if one is censored, it will quickly be picked up by another. Censorship is obviously seen as an assault on free speech, and it is usually this aspect that attracts the attention, rather than the nature of the story itself — indeed, many of the stories are downright boring compared to the ensuing shitstorm about censorship.
So-called "gag orders" and "super injunctions" are designed by courts to limit the effect. These orders prevent the press not just from reporting an incident, but also from reporting or hinting that they've been prevented from reporting it! These are often used in privacy or libel battles, but if overturned or lifted, the Streisand effect is free to come out in full force. Indeed, it often comes out in fuller force thanks to the nature of the super-injunctions limits on free speech. Applying for, and failing to achieve, a super-injunction in court often leads to greater publicity for a scandal.
- Pick any banned book and there's a good chance the Streisand effect came into play at some point. Indeed, some bookstores and libraries make a point of displaying and promoting banned books during "Banned Books Week," and attempts at suppressing some books turned them into best-sellers. Notable examples include Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses and former MI5 officer Peter Wright's Spycatcher.
- In a similar vein, attempts at prosecuting comedians, musicians, and magazine publishers for "obscenity" have usually backfired and made folk heroes out of Jim Morrison, Wendy O. Williams, Lenny Bruce, and Larry Flynt.
- Think of any recent political scandal. Would Watergate have the same lasting political effect if the break-in wasn't covered up for over six months? Politicians inside the Beltway coined their own formulation of the Streisand effect: "It's not the deed that will destroy you, but the cover-up."
- In February 1982, a made-for-television drama, Pray TV, aired on the U.S. ABC network. The movie probably would have come and gone without notice as it was tepid and frankly boring. Instead it generated some controversy and increased viewership after the Revs. Jerry Falwell and Donald Wildmon attempted to pressure ABC into not airing it because it cast doubt on the sincerity of televangelists.
- The Parents Music Resource Center, the group founded by Tipper Gore calling for censorship of sexual and violent lyrics in rock and rap music, published a list in 1985 of the "Filthy Fifteen" worst songs. Such formerly obscure songs like "Into the Coven" by Mercyful Fate, "In My House" by the Mary Jane Girls, and "Strap On Ronnie Baby" by Vanity were thrust into the limelight, and another of the bands on the list, W.A.S.P. was able to make commercial hay out of the PMRC's accusation. In protest of censorship by the PMRC, the band Tool released the music video for their song "Hush". In the video, band members appear nude with only "Parental Advisory" stickers to cover their genitalia. The "Parental Advisory" sticker, adopted by the music industry at the urging of the PMRC, has had the opposite of its intended effect as it became a mark of hip credibility to include enough dirty content to have the sticker. The same could be said for U.S. film ratings, where a "G" rating carries a stigma and putting in enough sexual or violent content to merit a "PG-13" is almost a must to have a successful run at the box office.
- Related to the above, the hip-hop subgenre known as gangsta rap likely would've remained an underground phenomenon had pundits, politicians, and groups like the PMRC not latched onto it in the early 1990s as a symbol of "everything wrong with music/black culture/violence in the media today". Instead, gangsta rap came to thoroughly dominate rap music for a good chunk of the 1990s, with every hysterical complaint about its violent, provocative content leading more people to seek it out. By 1996, it was at the point where a rapper's credibility could be called into question if he didn't present himself as a hardcore gangster.
- Every year, PETA submits an over-the-top TV advertisement intended to run during the Super Bowl, usually with highly sexually-suggestive content. Every year, the network refuses to run the ad, making it an instant hit as people flock to view it on the web just to see what the fuss is all about. This illustrates the ways in which pressure groups and fringe groups might understand the Streisand effect and manipulate it to their advantage. This may not always be to a good end; for example, the controversy over the once-obscure The Turner Diaries eventually led to its being reprinted by a mainstream publisher and sold in major bookstores for several years in the 1990s.
- The first Internet example was the Church of Scientology's attempts to suppress the Fishman Affidavit (which contained Church-copyrighted versions of Operating Thetan levels I-VII) in late 1995, which promptly resulted in hundreds of copies going up around the world.
- The YouTube video "YouTube vs The Users" by vlogger Thunderf00t was often promptly taken down and the accounts hosting it were suspended by the site, often without warning. As a result, the video was mirrored in dozens of accounts, some of them sockpuppet accounts, and hosted elsewhere where YouTube had no power. The video has now been viewed millions of times rather than the mere few thousand view that it would have obtained if left on Thunderf00t's channel.
- During the Lenski affair, Conservapedia administrator Andrew Schlafly completely censored a link to RationalWiki's article on the movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Trying to hide it with a comment about an automated "spam filter" led many to speculate why a respected professor such as Richard Lenski would link to spam or porn, thus RationalWiki's very existence, otherwise barred and censored on Conservapedia, was unwittingly revealed, and its profile raised a few notches.
- A brief injunction against UK newspaper The Guardian regarding a fairly boring story about an MP raised the profile of the story across the Internet, with freedom of speech objections swamping most of Twitter. Guido Fawkes and The Spectator also reported the story, giving it far more prominence than it would have achieved if left alone.
- The Internet Watch Foundation famously censored (in Great Britain) the album cover for Virgin Killer (by German heavy metal band The Scorpions) on Wikipedia on grounds of being "child pornography." This resulted in "Virgin Killer" being one of the top Google searches for a few weeks as people clamored to see what all the fuss was about.
- In October 2009, Ralph Lauren issued a DMCA complaint against Photoshop Disasters for criticising and reposting some of their advertising. Although the company later apologised for the shoddy photoshopping, they went and did the exact same thing again a few weeks later.
- In a slight twist to the Streisand Effect (i.e., actually preventing it), the Twitter-mirroring website Tweleted (now defunct) stated that it can't and won't make exceptions and filter out individuals:
I can't add an exception without creating an 'exception list' … which would be visible to any user with mild amounts of technical experience, and instantly make your own history much, much more interesting to them. I can also guarantee that if I did censor the results, someone would, within hours, set up an 'uncensored' version of Tweleted explicitly designed to search — and advertise — those users on the exception list.
- A classic example, multi-national McDonald's sued a few London Greenpeace activists over a critical pamphlet in what became known as the McLibel trial. Due to their long-running litigation (over ten years, the longest libel trial in English history), far more people than would have normally been exposed to the pamphlet were made aware of its contents. The lawsuit blew up even harder in McDonald's' face when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the activists had not engaged in libel (i.e. their claims couldn't be proven to be untrue) — which is to say, the claims that McDonald's had tried to suppress now had the tacit backing of a court of law.
- Google's Street View project has often caused controversy amongst privacy campaigners. But requests to blur and black-out some places in Germany backfired when they were targeted for vandalism. Evidently they didn't realise that deliberately blurred or blacked images draw more attention that just plain, uninteresting houses.
- Banning sales of RapeLay the video game worldwide made it popular among file sharing sites.
- During the last Michael Jackson trial, Tonight Show host Jay Leno made the requisite jokes about Jackson being a pedophile, and Jackson obtained a gag order on the grounds that Leno was a witness in the case. The judge eventually ruled that Leno could make jokes about Jackson as long as he didn't discuss his testimony. Meanwhile, Leno circumvented the order by having guest comedians come on and make the jokes for him, and celebrated the lifting of the gag order by doing a monologue consisting entirely of jokes about Michael Jackson.
- Some guy on the Internet decided to parody Glenn Beck's particularly cowardly style of deceit (e.g. to Muslim congressman Keith Ellison: "Prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.") by setting up the website glennbeckrapedandmurderedayounggirlin1990.com. The site reminds its readers that they don't actually know for sure whether Glenn Beck really raped and murdered a girl in 1990, but they sure want to know whether there is any truth to this oddly persistent rumor that Glenn Beck raped and murdered a young girl in 1990. Naturally Beck sued, claiming that his name was a trademark (!), but the case got tossed out. Way more people know this story now than would ever have known had Beck just let it go.
- At the behest of Republican staff, photojournalist and environmental activist Maria Gunnoe was questioned by police on child pornography charges because one of her images included a picture of a five-year-old bathing in water polluted by irresponsible mountaintop coal mining. They didn't want inconvenient evidence appearing before the House Natural Resources Committee, but now a lot more people know about the hearing and the environmental situation caused by mining in West Virginia.
- A then-unknown feminist vlogger named Anita Sarkeesian launched a Kickstarter campaign to create a series of videos analyzing sexism in video game storytelling. This displeased a large swathe of MRAs and antifeminists, who launched attacks against her, including death threats, DDOS attacks, hacking attempts, gaming YouTube's content flagging system, and attempts to dox her. This gross overreaction received attention from the vast majority of video game journalists, as well as some of the mainstream media. Virtually overnight, Sarkeesian became one of the most well-known feminist figures in games criticism, gaining a huge platform for her ideas, netting $158,922 in funding compared to her original $6000 goal (allowing her to greatly expand the show's episode count and production values), and appearing on late-night talk shows. If not for the response of her most hysterical critics, she would have continued toiling away in obscurity.
- The centerfold of the May 1967 issue of Paul Krasner's The Realist consisted of The Disneyland Memorial Orgy poster. The poster depicted virtually the whole copyrighted Disney pantheon engaged in sex or drug acts. According to Krasner, "The Disney corporation considered a lawsuit but realized that *The Realist* had no real assets, and besides, why bother causing themselves any further public embarrassment?"
- An unusual case of this is Escape from Tomorrow, a fictional movie set in Walt Disney World that is darkly satirical of Disney's culture and was filmed on location without permission. Disney's track record of aggressive copyright and trademark litigation as a method of silencing criticism gave the movie a very high profile after its Sundance premiere. Disney ultimately chose not to press charges, perhaps understanding they were unlikely to win and attempting to block it from distribution would only add digits to the viewer and revenue counts..
- Elliot Rodger's YouTube videos threatening violence, after being removed following his killing of six people and himself, were reposted around the Internet.
- Profanity wouldn't nearly have the effect it did on people if it wasn't banned. It's only rude, because it is rude.
- The Interview, a 2014 Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy, criticised and ridiculed the North Korean "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Un and imagined his assassination. The North Koreans tried to censor it, threatening terrorism against venues screening the movie and (possibly) orchestrating a large-scale hack of distributor Sony Pictures' servers (allegedly; it's complicated), which led Sony to cancel its release after a number of major theater chains balked at showing it. Even though the film was getting mixed reviews beforehand, North Korea's reaction made The Interview into a cause celebre for anti-censorship activists. A limited release of The Interview online and in select theaters became an immediate, very profitable smash hit.
- In December 2013, a Youtube channel by the name of "ghostlyrich" uploaded a video about his Samsung Galaxy S4 phone catching fire. Three days after this video's release, Samsung sent him a letter asking him to remove the video and never upload any video relating to Samsung again. The video's views shot up instantaneously from a few thousand to nearly a million.
- The California Coastal Records Project's article on the lawsuit.
- From the 2007 North Dakota Law Review: "Online Satellite and Aerial Images: Issues and Analysis" (pp. 457-78) -- "Invasion of Privacy" begins on page 561. The first mention of Babs' suit occurs at the bottom of the following page. (This article also has extensive discussions on Google Earth, if you're interested.)
- Right To Be Forgotten
- BBC Magazine — The perils of the Streisand effect
- Image number 3850 on their website. It is now more widely available and seen than would be expected if the photographer wasn't sued and the California Coastal Records Project was left on its own.
- Streisand v. Adelman (2003), case number SC 077 257
- See the Wikipedia article on Gag order.
- BBC News — Take That star Howard Donald's super-injunction lifted
- See Time's Top 10 Censored Books for some prime examples.
- Hollywood Loves the 'R,' but the Big Money's Rated PG-13, The Wrap
- Fishman affidavit
- Rational Responders
- Why We Protest — Youtube vs The Users
- BBC News &mdmash; When is a secret not a secret?
- The IWF and Wikipedia
- PSD — How To Turn A Photoshop Disaster Into A Photoshop Catastrophe
- PSD — The Hits Keep Coming
- BBC News — German vandals target Street View opt-out homes
- 'RapeLay' video game goes viral amid outrage
- ThinkProgess.org — House Republicans Censor Photo Showing Impacts Of Mountain Top Removal, Calling It Child Porn
- The Disneyland Memorial Orgy by Paul Krassner (05/25/2011 11:45 am ET) Huffington Post.
- See the Wikipedia article on Escape from Tomorrow#Legal issues.
- "Did the FBI get it wrong on North Korea?" CBS News, 23 December 2014 (recovered 1 August 2015).
- The Interview makes $15m in online release