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Society

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
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.

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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.

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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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