The Streisand Effect is a phenomenon where an act of suppressing information makes the information more widespread. Celebrities and organizations often find themselves in difficult situations when sensitive information gets publicized on the Internet. We might think that a quick course of action is the best solution, but on the Internet information can travel faster than anyone can keep up with and censorship can light up an issue like a Christmas tree. We’ll start with the effect’s namesake, because the story is too good to pass up.
10. Barbra Streisand
In 2003, a photographer took aerial photos of the Californian Coastline as part of a 12,000 picture collection for the Californian Coastline Records Project. The project was aimed at influencing government officials to combat coastline erosion. Among thousands of those photos, one showed a clear shot of a mansion owned by Barbra Streisand. She wasn’t happy and ordered her lawyers to take action, so they promptly filed a $50 million lawsuit. Before the lawsuit the photo had only been downloaded six times, of which two were by Streisand’s lawyers.
When the media took hold of the story, the site’s traffic rocketed to 420,000 visits in the next month. The photo found its way all over the Internet, and to add to Streisand’s frustrations the lawsuit was dismissed by the Los Angeles Superior Court. If that wasn’t enough, the Court ordered her to pay the owner of the website more than $150,000 for legal fees and court costs.
It was two years later that the term Streisand Effect was coined. Mike Masnick of Techdirt first used it to describe what happened between the Toronto Airport and the website urinal.net. The Greater Toronto Airports Authority ordered the website to remove the Airport’s name, which was accompanied by pictures of the urinals found in the airport. The story broke, and people started visiting the site just to see two everyday urinals.
In June 2014, taxi drivers rallied on the streets of Central London to express their opposition towards Uber, an app that makes use of a Smartphone’s GPS feature to locate where you are and connect you to a driver. The app was just slowly becoming popular in major European cities. The protest proved to be not just a failure, but it also brought the issue straight towards the Streisand Effect. Uber reported that it received an 859% increase in downloads compared to the previous week. The app also received the most sign-ups since its release in 2012.
8. Ralph Lauren
An image of a model from Ralph Lauren was posted in two blogs, Photoshop Disasters and BoingBoing. Looking at the size of the girl’s pelvis, it’s obvious that it’s been edited. The original post at BoingBoing has a caption that says, “Dude, her head’s bigger than her pelvis.” Ralph Lauren received word and personally decided to take action. He sent cease-and-desist letters to the two blogs, claiming that they were violating copyright law and ordered the photo to be taken down.
BoingBoing refused to remove the image and called out the error in copyright law that Ralph Lauren made. The image fell under fair use, which allows usage for news and commentaries. Ralph Lauren offered an apology, not for the cease-and-desist letters, but for the distorted ad. The image circulated around the Internet and Lauren received backlash. More people become outraged when news broke that the model was fired for being “too fat.” She weighed 120 pounds.
During the 2013 Super Bowl, Beyoncé did an energetic performance and Buzzfeed posted 33 photos of her “Fiercest Moments” from it. Beyoncé’s publicist nicely asked Buzzfeed to remove some of the photos that looked unflattering. Instead of heeding the publicist’s polite request, Buzzfeed made another post called “The Unflattering Photos Beyoncé’s Publicist Doesn’t Want You To See.”
The first post wasn’t much of a hit, but the second was a winner. It included the email that the publicist sent Buzzfeed, which read, “I am certain you will be able to find some better photos… The worst are #5, 6, 10, 11, 12, 19, and 22. Thank you very much.” The Internet got a hold of them and soon memes were born showing Beyoncé as the Hulk, a weightlifter and the face of the Ermahgerd meme. Buzzfeed added that they sent a reply asking why the photos were considered unflattering, but never received a reply.
6. The Interview
When North Korea heard that Sony was releasing a movie about Kim Jung Un, they couldn’t leave it alone. The country became angry when a GIF of the scene showing the death of the dictator was leaked online. Out of nowhere Sony’s corporate emails were leaked, which opened up a controversy involving Barrack Obama. The hackers tried to stop The Interview from showing in theaters by making a bombing threat if major cinemas screened the film. Fearing for the safety of the moviegoers, most theaters decided not to screen The Interview.
Sony itself pulled the film but later announced that it would be available online. Several independent theaters, including one owned by George R. R. Martin, decided to show it. The Interview hit computers and indie theaters on Christmas, and people were very eager to see what the suppressed movie was all about. Major publications like the New York Times gave negative reviews, but discussed their motivations in seeing the movie to support freedom of speech and find out what the fuss was all about.
5. Roko’s Basilisk
We would warn you that a lot of people who learn about Roko’s Basilik wish they hadn’t, but that will probably just make more people want to read this. That’s a clear Streisand Effect, but Roko’s Basilisk didn’t catch on because of a warning. Roko’s Basilisk is a proposition discussed by a member of LessWrong, a blog concerned about improving human rationality, describing a theoretical artificial intelligence that would punish those who didn’t help bring it to existence. This includes people from the past who knew about the AI and did nothing to help create it. The number of people who discussed Roko’s Basilisk grew when the original post about it was deleted and any discussion about the topic was banned from the original site.
Roko’s Basilisk is able to punish people from the past because it has the ability to simulate the mind of a person based on data collected through their interaction with any form of technology. The proposition is quite abstract, but merely contemplating it kicked off such a fuss that the discussion had to be shut down. Some LessWrong members even figured out how to remove any trace of their online existence to prevent the Basilisk from simulating them in the future. The original thread about the AI is archived here. RationalWiki discusses the idea of the Basilisk in more detail.
4. The Pirate Bay
In July 2011, a request was made by the British Phonographic Industry asking The Pirate Bay to remove torrent links of copyrighted music of the company’s members. The torrent site refused, which forced the company to go to court. In April 2012, the High Court of the United Kingdom ordered five major Internet service providers to block access to the torrent’s site. This proved to be a terrible move that only increased The Pirate Bay’s popularity. The block was set up on May 1, 2012, but around 12 million visitors more than the site has ever received accessed The Pirate Bay that day. Right after the block was set up, the torrent site gave users easy ways to get around it and continue accessing torrent links that The Pirate Bay hosts.
3. Jennifer Lawrence
In August 2014, a massive photo leak of nude celebrities hit the Internet. A team of lawyers hired by Jennifer Lawrence asked Google to remove links to the photos. News about the photos was already widespread, but new developments were reported by the media and only created more publicity.
The legal action and Google’s attempt to prevent access were trumped by the hacker changing the domain name of the host site. Meanwhile, the public was made even more aware when Lawrence talked to Vanity Fair about the photos in an interview. Google continued to be pressured legally to take effective action, with the search engine threatened with a lawsuit for 100 million dollars. Google reported that it had taken down tens of thousands of photos and closed many accounts, but only after the photos had spready far and wide.
2. ghostlyrich and Samsung
YouTube user ghostlyrich uploaded a video showing evidence that his Samsung Galaxy S4 caught fire for no apparent reason. He made an official complaint to the company and Samsung happily offered him a deal to replace the phone with a new one provided that he remove the video and not upload similar material. Instead of accepting the deal, ghostlyrich uploaded a second video that earned more than a million views. In it, ghostlyrich expressed his concern about how Samsung deals with major safety concerns regarding their products and doesn’t follow the normal warranty procedure without asking for legal silence.
Several stories about Samsung smartphones catching fire have since been reported. One man from Hong Kong lost his house in a fire that was allegedly started by his Samsung Galaxy S4, and an 18 year old Swiss woman received third degree burns on her legs because her Galaxy S4 allegedly exploded in her pocket.
1. Martha Payne and NeverSeconds
In May 2012, nine year old Martha Payne decided to take pictures of her lunch and post them on her blog, NeverSeconds. At her school, students weren’t allowed to ask for second servings, thus the name. On her posts, she described and rated her lunches according to taste, nutritional value and even number of mouthfuls. Martha was also helping a local charity called Mary’s Meals to raise money to feed young students in Africa.
Students and teachers from around the world visited her blog and submitted photos of their own school lunches. A lot of parents commented about how small the portions of her lunch were, and finally the media took notice. A story made it to the newspaper and the school council decided to take action. Martha described in an entry called “Goodbye,” about how she was called out of class and told she couldn’t take pictures of her lunch anymore. She also described her fears that she won’t be able to raise enough money to build a Mary’s Meals kitchen in Africa.
The Streisand Effect ensued — social media was abuzz about the story and tons of petitions and requests were sent to the school council. Just one day after Martha was told she couldn’t take pictures of her lunch anymore, the school rescinded their decision and allowed the continuation of the blog. Not only did Martha became a sensation, but she was able to raise more than enough money for the charity.