How Barbra Streisand created the Streisand effect?

June 8, 2020 5:45 AM

When an attempt to hide, remove or censor information has the ripple effect of further publicising that very information, often via the internet

By Vidya Hattangadi

The social media is like bomb of information. When somebody wants to hide or suppress information, it explodes all the more. How information moves on social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, has become a commanding factor in protest movements, national elections, and the rise and fall of commercial brands. Yes, people are hooked on to their social media accounts; they are getting information, whether important or not so important. People on social platforms divulge massive amounts of information about themselves, their relatives and their friends.

That’s where the Streisand effect comes from: It is a social phenomenon that occurs when someone tries to attempt to hide, remove or censor information—this act gets a ripple effect of further publicising that information, often via the internet. It is named after American entertainer Barbra Streisand who attempted to suppress photographs of her residence in Malibu, California, which unintentionally drew further attention to it in 2003. By trying to suppress the images, she caused a different outcome. When she tried to take legal action, it infuriated her fans, almost half a million people visiting the Pictopia (the internet’s super photo lab and photo commerce site) and viewing and copying the photos of her residence within a month. The term ‘Streisand effect’ was coined by Mike Masnick of Techdirt.com, who noted how feeble lawsuits were at preventing spread in the virtual world.

The problem for anyone trying to suppress information is that the internet is the world’s biggest and most efficient copying machine. Put a document onto a connected machine and it will proliferate. The irony of the internet is that when you want to be famous, you can’t, but if you find yourself in the spotlight and want to erase yourself, you cannot. The evidences linger on.

The fact is that when people find content they think should not be suppressed, they will copy it and put it on the internet. The replication becomes impossible to hold back because any time a web server gains a new file and is queried by the search engines’ ‘spiders’ which go out looking to see what has changed on the web, the cache of the web is updated, with the location of the new file.

In 2019, after Michael Wolff published Fire and Fury—the epic, sales-smashing, unforgiving gossip-dump depicting the can’t-make-this-stuff-up chaos and confusion of the Trump administration—the conventional wisdom was that Wolff wouldn’t be able to pull off another White House tell-all book of photographs. Fire and Fury, which has reportedly sold more than 4 million copies to date, was simply too non-improvisational, too explosive, too scandalous for any sources to be willing to talk to Wolff again. Surely he’d burned all of his bridges, the thinking went. Donald Trump decided that the correct response to Wolff’s book was an attempt to censor it. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Even before Trump had made his decision, the book was being billed as an explosive one. The excerpts from the book had already irked media and reader curiosity. Once the initial hype around the book had receded, the book would probably have receded in public memory as well. It would, very likely, have been replaced by something else that catches our attention with every click. However, Trump’s attempt at trying to restrict the book’s publication has now ensured that a wide range of people, who might have heard of the book but never intended to read it, are now on their way to devouring it.

The book sold out on Amazon on the day of its release, and people had to wait to get the copy for almost two weeks, as the pre-order list was huge, full of potential readers. The websites showed thousands of reviewers, who said that the only reason they came to buy the book was because the president of the US tried to stop it. This is an incredible example of the Streisand effect.

Here is the latest in a list of examples of the Streisand effect in India, where an attempt to suppress something has the unintended effect of publicising it more widely. Comedian Tanmay Bhat on Snapchat, who is not very popular in India, except among teenagers, was having a bit of a boring day and decided to enliven it for himself by making a Snapchat video called ‘Sachin vs Lata Civil War’ some time ago. He superimposed the faces of Tendulkar and Mangeshkar to create a supposed dialogue between the two about the possible superiority of Virat Kohli as a batsman. Predictably, the video was peppered with swear words and curse words.

Riteish Deshmukh, the Indian actor, was the first to come out in protest by saying the video was in poor taste. Our politicians promptly weighed right in, too: Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) filed a complaint with the Mumbai Police and BJP legislator Ashish Shelar wanted to register a complaint under a non-bailable provision of the IPC. Various people called for a ban and removal of the video from YouTube and other social media platforms. TV news anchor Arnab Goswami, for a change, hosted a debate on the matter, as did every journo worth their salt. “Roast wale din yaad aa gaye, by god,” tweeted Bhat.

But that isn’t even the point. The fact that entire TV debates were dedicated to this silly video, the who’s who of the Twitterati had their take on it, political parties were up in arms against it, suddenly the whole nation got to know who Bhat was and his rather mediocre video had attained worldwide fame.

The author is a management thinker and blogger

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