What is the Streisand Effect?

7 minute read

What is the Streisand Effect?

Summary of the Streisand Effect

On May 30th, 2003 it was reported that Barbra Streisand sued a man claiming an invasion of her privacy because he had shared aerial pictures of her Malibu home. Streisand inadvertently attracted more attention to her home by trying to suppress the images. The Streisand Effect is when the action of suppressing something to reduce or remove visibility it causes the opposite to happen.

Here are some of the highlights of the case:

  • The photo was posted as part of the California Coastal Records Project, which documents erosion along the California coastline with aerial photos taken from a helicopter
  • But Streisand filed a suit in Los Angeles County Superior Court, saying posting of her home's photo violates California's "anti-paparazzi" law because the photographer didn't ask her permission
  • Within a month of the lawsuit, more than 420,000 people visited the site

It is not uncommon for attempts to suppress information online to end up making the information more popular, like with the Streisand Effect. Similar terms include blowback and astroturfing. 

What's Blowback?

Streisand used the American legal system to attempt to suppress the images. This included cease and desist letters and other public actions. Sometimes unintended consequences happen due to operations intended to be covert. Blowback is any unwanted, and often unseen effect. Originally coined by the CIA, Blowback is similar to the Streisand Effect. 

What's Astroturfing?

Astroturfing occurs when an entity attempts to develop grassroots support where little to none exists. The term is a play on the brand AstroTurf, synthetic carpeting designed to resemble natural grass. Astroturfing can be used in an attempt to establish credibility without any legitimate backing (political, financial, or otherwise).

The unintended consequences of astroturfing can include blowback. When politicians hire people to act as demonstrators in order to create an air of dissension, it is astroturfing. Online, astroturfing is more commonly revealed as:

  • Fake reviews
  • The opinions of paid bloggers
  • Planted news articles intended to alter how the public perceives a person, company, or brand

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What Triggers the Streisand Effect?

In a nutshell, anything that is made a big deal of can become a bigger deal. The Streisand Effect is sometimes triggered by legal activity around suppression or obfuscation of information.

In the original example, Barbra Streisand had her attorney issue cease and desist letters which triggered the avalanche of public press. The image had apparently only been viewed six times at that point. Her lawsuit against the California Coastal Records Project began a media avalanche that went viral because her actions were seen as harmful to freedom of speech by many. In the end, the image was viewed millions of times. Even though the case was later thrown out, Streisand's privacy had been far more compromised than it would have been had she not brought the suit in the first place. 

Even Google can be the subject of the Streisand Effect. For example, recently they removed the Google Glass Facebook page as well as other references online. Immediately the internet noticed and fingers flew across keyboards with articles being posted online at a fierce rate. The removal of information caused it to become even more noticeable. 

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Examples of the Streisand Effect

Tom Cruise Indoctrination Video

Gawker aired the Scientology indoctrination video of Tom Cruise. Scientologists apparently tried to censor it. The internet went wild. 

Glenn Beck Video

Glenn Beck's search results returned "Glenn Beck Murder" back in 2009 due to the appearance of a website calledGlennBeckRapedAndMurderedAYoungGirlIn1990.com (no longer active). Glenn Beck sued and the internet responded with a really creepy video about Glenn Beck. The video is still up because parody in a non-commercial use is legal. 

Beyonce Unflattering Photos

The Streisand Effect can even happen to Beyonce. After some unflattering photos of Beyonce appeared on Buzzfeed, her PR team politely contacted Buzzfeed asking that better images be used. Instead of complying, Buzzfeed posted the request online. Remember, Buzzfeeds entire purpose is to attract viewers, the letter was their ticket to viral stardom. The internet responded of course, in a very unflattering way

Samsung Galaxy Batteries

In December 2013, YouTube user ghostlyrich uploaded video proof that his Samsung Galaxy S4 battery had spontaneously caught fire. Samsung had demanded proof before honoring its warranty. Once Samsung learned of the YouTube video, it added additional conditions to its warranty, demanding ghostlyrich delete his video, promise not to upload similar material, officially absolve the company of all liability, waive his right to bring a lawsuit, and never make the terms of the agreement public. Instead of minimizing viewership, Samsung's attempt to cover up the video only made it more popular. 

How to Prevent the Streisand Effect

Suppressing online content can be tricky and there is always the risk of inadvertently attracting more attention the the content you're trying to hide. However, there are a few ways to manipulate search results to your advantage without going straight to the source of any unwanted content. Because whenever lawyers are involved, the chances of the Streisand Effect happening to you skyrocket. 

Here are some dos and don'ts to suppress online content:

  • DO identify positive existing content. Focus promotion efforts on positive content that already exists. This can help diversify search results and hopefully draw some attention away from the negative unwanted content. 
  • DO create additional positive content, both on your own website and on relevant third party sites. 
  • DON'T file a lawsuit. If you can help it, avoid legal action. This oftentimes incites more anger in the original poster, leading them to share details of any claims filed, which can strengthen their original content and make it more popular. 
  • DO check for violations to Google's Terms of Service. Google will remove content from their search results under certain circumstances.

The Online Reputation Minefield

Whether it be nice letters or threats of defamation, the internet loses its mind at even a whiff of censorship. People seem to feel that all information should be free. And in this post-privacy era where online reputation is more important than ever, we all walk the razor's edge when trying to gain some control over our lives online. 

The Streisand Effect FAQs

What is the Streisand Effect?

The Streisand Effect is when the action of suppressing something to reduce or remove visibility causes the opposite to happen. Similar terms include blowback and astroturfing.

What is blowback?

Blowback is the unintended consequences that occur when attempting to suppress or remove visibility of an event.

What is astroturfing?

Astroturfing is when an entity attempts to develop grassroots support where little to none exists. When politicians hire people to act as demonstrators in order to create an air of dissension, it is astroturfing. Online, astroturfing is more commonly revealed as fake reviews, the opinions of paid bloggers, and planted news articles intended to alter how the public perceives a person, company, or brand.

what is the streisand effect?

Image credit: Libarary of CongressNo copyright restriction known. Staff photographer reproduction rights transferred to Library of Congress through Instrument of Gift.