The Streisand Effect: When Internet Censorship Backfires

Babs tried and failed, so did the peeps working for Beyonce and even French President Francois Hollande. Once online, information beats to the sound of its own drum.

Not all her pictures look that good
Frédéric Joignot

PARIS — In 2003, as part of a major investigation into coastal erosion, photographer Kenneth Adelman published an aerial shot of the cliff atop which sits Barbra Streisand’s villa, a mansion with a bean-shaped swimming-pool. Annoyed, the singer filed a lawsuit against Adelman, accusing him of violating California’s anti-paparazzi laws and demanding that the photo be removed from his public collection. The photographer and his attorneys argued that the purpose of the photo was to show the coast of Malibu — not the home of a celebrity.

The photographer ultimately won the case, and Streisand suffered a double defeat. Word of the lawsuit got around, which led to the photograph being published on several websites. In the month after the lawsuit, it was seen 420,000 times.

The coast of Malibu and the Streisand Estate - Photo: California Coastal Records Project

And thus a new star was born: the Streisand Effect. The chain of events is more or less always the same. A handful of people take offense of an unflattering photo of someone famous, or of a picture that provokes or accuses an institution or someone in power. The subjects of the photos fear the images might damage their reputation, so they demand their removal or file complaints. The attempts to suppress backfire, as other news organizations, websites, blogs and social networks republish the photographs in question, expanding their circulation and visibility. In the end, the offending images go viral.

A more recent example involves French President François Hollande, who was pictured recently wearing what some criticized as a “forced” and “ridiculous” smile. The news agency AFP removed it Sept. 3 and asked newspapers not to publish it. The request made it look like the president had personally intervened, and the rumored censorship set off an immediate Streisand effect. The goofy photo that few had noticed before was republished prolifically — and widely mocked.

The list of examples is long and eclectic. In February, Beyonce’s agents demanded that websites remove pictures of her taken during her Superbowl half-time show. The decision instantly set the web on fire, especially since People magazine named the singer the “world’s most beautiful woman” a few months before.

The stuff memes are made of ... Source: knowyourmeme

In May, a video clip from the French band Indochine for the single “College Boy” depicted a student being humiliated, beaten and eventually killed. French communications regulators expressed outrage and said they would ban people under 16 or even 18 from watching it. As a result, the expand=1] video got more than a million views on YouTube.

In January, during a news report on demonstrations against gay marriage for the state television channel France 2, a journalist was seen having a laugh with Gilbert Collard, a legislator from the nationalist Front National party. She asked for the short video to be removed from the archives, but other journalists took a screenshot of the clip and showed it during another program. And so the picture of the reporter laughing was all over the Internet.

Media consumers have changed

On April 4, the president of Wikimedia France, Rémi Mathis, was ordered by the Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur (DCRI, the French interior intelligence agency) to remove a Wikipedia article that contained several photographs of a military radio relay station. “I was surprised,” Mathis recalls. “The information contained in the entry had been taken from a local television report greenlighted by the air force. I warned the DCRI that deleting the article wouldn’t prevent it from spreading.”

He was right. No sooner than the article and pictures were removed that Wikipedia Switzerland republished them, Reporters Without Borders denounced “an unfortunate incident,” and tens of thousands of people viewed the article. “The days when people were passive media spectators are over now,” Mathis says. “With the Internet, we need to take these never-seen-before amplification phenomena into account.”

Beyond the willingness to challenge widespread censorship on the Internet, Mathis says it’s interesting to analyze the underlying “cultural patterns” at play. Ultimately, he says, the Streisand effect is a sign of the willingness of citizens to refuse the secrets of the powerful.

“Studies show that there are three factors that motivate people to react on the Internet: feelings of injustice, anger and indignation,” says Olivier Ertzscheid, professor in the Department of Information and Communication at the University of Nantes. “That’s why they rally whenever a power bans an image, even if it’s insignificant. But the rallying will be as important as the person’s or the institution's status.”

Of course, there can be defamatory and unhealthy abuses of this effect. In December 2007, pictures of French swimmer Laure Manaudou in which she appeared topless performing oral sex on her fiancé spread widely on the Internet, even as her lawyer threatened — in vain — to sue websites that were publishing the photos. The Streisand effect isn’t always an act of online Robin Hood. Defenders of freedom can also have the worst intentions.

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Merkel's Legacy: The Rise And Stall Of The German Economy

How have 16 years of Chancellor Angela Merkel changed Germany? The Chancellor accompanied the country's rise to near economic superpower status — and then progress stalled. On technology and beyond, Germany needs real reforms under Merkel's successor.

Chancellor Angela Merkel looks at the presentation of the current 2 Euro commemorative coin ''Brandenburg''

Daniel Eckert

BERLIN — Germans are doing better than ever. By many standards, the economy broke records during the reign of outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel: private households' financial assets have climbed to a peak; the number of jobs recorded a historic high before the pandemic hit at the beginning of 2020; the GDP — the sum of all goods and services produced in a period — also reached an all-time high.

And still, while the economic balance sheet of Merkel's 16 years is outstanding if taken at face value, on closer inspection one thing catches the eye: against the backdrop of globalization, Europe's largest economy no longer has the clout it had at the beginning of the century. Germany has fallen behind in key sectors that will shape the future of the world, and even the competitiveness of its manufacturing industries shows unmistakable signs of fatigue.

In 2004, a year before Merkel was first elected Chancellor, the British magazine The Economist branded Germany the "sick man of Europe." Ironically, the previous government, a coalition of center-left and green parties, had already laid the foundations for recovery with some reforms. Facing the threat of high unemployment, unions had held back on wage demands.

"Up until the Covid-19 crisis, Germany had achieved strong economic growth with both high and low unemployment," says Michael Holstein, chief economist at DZ Bank. However, it never made important decisions for its future.

Another economist, Jens Südekum of Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, offers a different perspective: "Angela Merkel profited greatly from the preparatory work of her predecessor. This is particularly true regarding the extreme wage restraint practiced in Germany in the early 2000s."

Above all, Germany was helped in the first half of the Merkel era by global economic upheaval. Between the turn of the millennium and the 2011-2012 debt crisis, emerging countries, led by China, experienced unprecedented growth. With many German companies specializing in manufacturing industrial machines and systems, the rise of rapidly industrializing countries was a boon for the country's economy.

Germany dismissed Google as an over-hyped tech company.

Digital competitiveness, on the other hand, was not a big problem in 2005 when Merkel became chancellor. Google went public the year before, but was dismissed as an over-hyped tech company in Germany. Apple's iPhone was not due to hit the market until 2007, then quickly achieved cult status and ushered in a new phase of the global economy.

Germany struggled with the digital economy, partly because of the slow expansion of internet infrastructure in the country. Regulation, lengthy start-up processes and in some cases high taxation contributed to how the former economic wonderland became marginalized in some of the most innovative sectors of the 21st century.

Volkswagen's press plant in Zwickau, Germany — Photo: Jan Woitas/dpa/ZUMA

"When it comes to digitization today, Germany has a lot of catching up to do with the relevant infrastructure, such as the expansion of fiber optics, but also with digital administration," says Stefan Kooths, Director of the Economic and Growth Research Center at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW Kiel).

For a long time now, the country has made no adjustments to its pension system to ward off the imminent demographic problems caused by an increasingly aging population. "The social security system is not future-proof," says Kooths. The most recent changes have come at the expense of future generations and taxpayers, the economist says.

Low euro exchange rates favored German exports

Nevertheless, things seemed to go well for the German economy at the start of the Merkel era. In part, this can be explained by the economic downturn caused by the euro debt crisis of 2011-2012. Unlike in the previous decade, the low euro exchange rate favored German exports and made money flow into German coffers. And since then-European Central Bank president Mario Draghi's decision to save the euro "whatever it takes" in 2012, this money has become cheaper and cheaper.

In the long run, these factors inflated the prices of real estate and other sectors but failed to contribute to the future viability of the country. "With the financial crisis and the national debt crisis that followed, economic policy got into crisis mode, and it never emerged from it again," says DZ chief economist Holstein. Policy, he explains, was geared towards countering crises and maintaining the status quo. "The goal of remaining competitive fell to the background, as did issues concerning the future."

In the traditional field of manufacturing, the situation deteriorated significantly. The Institut der Deutschen Wirtschaft (IW), which regularly measures and compares the competitiveness of industries in different countries, recently concluded that German companies have lost many of the advantages they had gained. The high level of productivity, which used to be one of the country's strengths, faltered in the years before the pandemic.

Kooths, of IfW Kiel, points out that private investment in the German economy has declined in recent years, while the "government quota" in the economy, which describes the amount of government expenditure against the GDP, grew significantly during Merkel's tenure, from 43.5% in 2005 to 46.5% in 2019. Kooths concludes that: "Overall, the state's influence on economic activity has increased significantly."

Another very crucial aspect of competitiveness, at least from the point of view of skilled workers and companies, has been neglected by German politics for years: taxes and social contributions. The country has among the highest taxes on income in Europe, and corporate taxes are also hardly as high as in Germany anywhere in the industrialized world. "In the long run, high tax rates always come at the expense of economic dynamism and can even prevent new companies from being set up," warns Kooths.

Startups can renew an economy and lay the foundation for future prosperity. Between the year 2000 and the Covid-19 crisis, fewer and fewer new companies were created every year. Economists from left to right are unanimous: Angela Merkel is leaving behind a country with considerable need for reform.

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