The Streisand Effect: When censorship backfires

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Martha Payne
Image caption,
Martha's NeverSeconds blog attracted even more attention after she was banned from taking photographs of her school dinners

Argyll and Bute Council are in the news for falling foul of what's known as the Streisand Effect - the act of trying to suppress information but simply making it more widespread as a result.

Martha Payne, from Argyll, was writing about her school dinners on her NeverSeconds blog, taking pictures of them and offering ratings for their nutritional value.

But Argyll and Bute Council banned her from taking photos of her school's food, saying press coverage of the blog had led catering staff to fear for their jobs.

However, they reckoned without the Streisand Effect, which saw the photo ban make headline news in some of the nation's biggest media organisations and the story spiral into a much bigger one than it ever was before.

The furore forced the local authority to reverse the ban, with the leader issuing a statement to say there was "no place for censorship" on the council.

The story sums up the Streisand Effect, named after singer Barbra Streisand, which is an online phenomenon in which an attempt to hide or remove information - a photo, video, story etc - results in the greater spread of the information in question.

Paul Armstrong, head of social for Mindshare , a global media network, says the Streisand Effect is a reminder to brands and celebrities about the effect groups, and individuals, can have on the internet in a very short space of time.

"People have an innate inquisitiveness. When this is mixed with a fear of missing out, feeling something is being hidden from them or that someone is overacting to something, it can cause individuals to react in undesired or mischievous ways that others then support.

"Mix this combination with a natural dislike for censorship and brands or individuals can have a recipe for disaster on their hands."

Here are some examples of the Streisand effect:

Funny Girl Unamused

In 2003 Barbra Streisand attempted to suppress photographs taken of her house, and a meme was born.

Image caption,
Barbra Streisand was unhappy that a photograph of her Malibu home was put on the internet

She sued aerial photographer Kenneth Adelman for displaying a photograph of her home in Malibu, California, published as part of a series of photos of the California coastline that he was taking for a photographic project.

Her legal action was later dismissed under California law - but she was probably more upset by the 420,000 visits in a month to the site where her photo was published. Naturally, these all came after the news of her legal action made headlines around the world.

In fact, according to documents filed in a California court, her house's image had been downloaded only six times before Streisand's legal action - including twice by her own lawyers.

Mike Masnick of Techdirt coined the singer's attempt to suppress publication of the photograph as the "Streisand effect" in January 2005.

Pirates Ahoy

The High Court in the UK ordered five British ISPs to block access to The Pirate Bay in April this year, due to concerns over copyright infringement.

The subsequent media coverage led to The Pirate Bay, a file-sharing website based in Sweden, receiving a record amount of traffic. The number of unique visitors increased by up to 12 million during that period, according to the site's blog.

Paul Armstrong describes this as "a prime example of large entities misunderstanding the internet and publicity. Announcing the blocking only served to create desire to know more".

Winger Clipped

Ryan Giggs was already world famous as a footballer for Manchester United - and then he decided to take on Twitter.

He sued the site after a user revealed that he was the subject of an anonymous privacy injunction - commonly known as a super-injunction - preventing the publication of details regarding an alleged affair with model Imogen Thomas.

Image caption,
Ryan Giggs's attempts to hide his identity in the story of his alleged affair were scuppered by Twitter

However, this legal action greatly offended the "twitterati" or at least 75,000 of them, who subsequently retweeted - or republished - Giggs's name and affair claim around the site.

It posed a challenge to Giggs and to the law, to see if they were both willing to chase an ever-growing number of microbloggers for their publication of his name in this particular context.

Eventually Giggs consented to being named as the football player behind Imogen Thomas's injunction.

"A nation obsessed with the latest celebrity gossip, a dislike for censorship and innate human inquisitiveness made for an own goal here," says Mr Armstrong.

Bruised Cruise

In January 2008, the Church of Scientology tried unsuccessfully to get websites to delete a video of Tom Cruise speaking about Scientology, even filing a copyright claim in an effort to get the videos removed.

But not only did the footage get much more attention than before the church's legal efforts, it even resulted in the creation of Project Chanology - an anti-Scientology campaign.

Image caption,
A Tom Cruise video containing his views on Scientology attracted widespread ridicule

A Scientology spokeswoman said the full video could be seen in its churches, and that what appeared on the internet was a "pirated and edited" version of an acceptance speech Cruise had made in 2004 after receiving a "freedom medal" from the International Association of Scientologists, she said.

"The Church of Scientology would have been better with a less aggressive approach - in all likelihood this video, without the extra attention, would have petered out after the initial buzz subsided," says Mr Armstrong.

Cover Story

It all began when the Internet Watch Foundation, an online watchdog, warned internet providers that the picture on a Wikipedia page for the German heavy metal band Scorpions , may be illegal.

Their claims led to the band's Wikipedia page being blocked. The IWF's concerns surrounded an album cover of the band's album Virgin Killer, released in 1976, which features a photo of a young girl.

The IWF said the image could potentially contravene the Protection of Children Act 1978.

Image caption,
The Scorpions are a long-standing German rock band

It was noted at the time that the IWF had blocked Wikipedia but not Amazon, where the album could be seen and bought, apparently for "pragmatic" reasons. Critics said this was because Amazon had more money than Wikipedia and would have been better placed to fight the blockage.

Volunteers who run Wikipedia said it was not for the foundation to censor the site, also arguing that the image was available in a number of books and had never been ruled illegal.

Eventually the IWF backed down, saying that given the age and availability of the image, it was no longer on its list of proscribed sites.

"Sometimes it's best to pick your battles, or platform," says Mr Armstrong. "The exact opposite desired effect was observed when the IWF over-reacted to a Wikipedia article and in turn helped to spread the very image it regarded as indecent."