The Streisand Effect: When hiding becomes plain sight

·5-min read

Please do not read this

In July 2019, Joel Michael Singer headbutted an employee of YOLO, a restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Someone took a video of the incident, which then spread across the internet.

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Mr. Singer, of unknown singing talent, did prove to be the number one suspect behind a slew of ensuing Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) claims on YouTube, Reddit, and elsewhere, in an apparent attempt to scrub the evidence.

But the headbutter found himself, dare we say, a little in over his head: The more content was flagged, the more attention was drawn to the altercation. His attempts to keep information from the public backfired, in a paradox known as the Streisand Effect.

Named after Barbra Streisand, a singer of the non-headbutting variety, the Streisand Effect explains the notoriety of everything from a Tom Cruise Scientology video to a Twitter account devoted to a cow. So how did an ironic internet phenomenon acquire the name of an iconic chanteuse?

Gather round netizens, let’s uncover what others are trying to cover-up.


Origin story

Screenshot:  Kenneth and Gabrielle Adelman
Screenshot: Kenneth and Gabrielle Adelman

Image 3850

The story behind the Streisand Effect begins with a photograph.

In 2002, Kenneth and Gabrielle Adelman created the California Coastal Records Project to draw attention to coastal erosion. Gabrielle piloted a R-44 helicopter and flew along the state’s 1,100 mile-long (1,770 km) shoreline, while Kenneth snapped aerial photos. They published over 12,000 images on a website open to the public, and hoped the data would draw attention to environmental issues.

Not everyone appreciated the scientific endeavor. Kenneth was slapped with a multimillion-dollar lawsuit in 2003, and it came from none other than Barbra Streisand, of mezzo-soprano fame and Hollywood acclaim. Kenneth included a photo, titled Image 3850, of her cliff-top Malibu mansion with the survey. Streisand claimed that he had violated her privacy.

But the lawsuit triggered a media circus, driving hundreds of thousands of netizens to visit Adelman’s website and download the image. In the words of the Japan Times, which published a story about Streisand’s dilemma: “She would clearly have done better to say nothing.”

Following the incident, Mike Masnick, founder of the blog Techdirt, coined the term “the Streisand Effect” in a blog post.


By the numbers

$50 million: Amount for which Streisand sued Kenneth Adelman in damages, comprising five separate $10 million claims

6: Number of times Image 3850 had been downloaded at the time Streisand filed the lawsuit, two of which were from Streisand’s own attorneys

420,000: Downloads of Image 3850 within a month after the lawsuit was filed

$177,000: Legal fees for Adelman that Streisand was ordered to pay at the conclusion of the case



Quotable

“So long as the possession of these writings were attended by danger, they were eagerly sought and read: when there was no longer any difficulty in securing them, they fell into oblivion.”

Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus noted in his book Historiae (c. 100-110 AD) that Emperor Nero’s attempts to suppress ideas and information often had the opposite effect (pdf)


Charted

Graphic:  Julia Malleck
Graphic: Julia Malleck

Streisand is far from the only high-profile name to score a publicity own goal.

A Twitter account called @elonjet once tracked the movement of Elon Musk’s private flights, including 13-minute trips hopping across cities in California. Musk, as the CEO of Twitter, suspended the account on Dec. 14, 2022, citing a violation of privacy. Following the ban, the Google search term interest in “elon jet” spiked.


🎧 Podcast interlude

We don’t need to talk about plastic

Plastic water bottles, plastic cups, plastic grocery bags... no matter where you go, there it is, probably even floating around in Image 3850.

In the latest episode of the Quartz Obsession podcast, Scott talks to Quartz editor Sofia Lotto Persio about what manufacturers could do to make a real dent in the plastic problem.

🎧 Listen right now!

✅ Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google | Stitcher | YouTube 


Pop quiz

Which of these is another real “effect”?

A. The Rimsky-Korsakov Effect

B. The Noodle Effect

C. The Two Hundredth Monkey Effect

D. The Cobra Effect

The Quartz Obsession Effect is when you scroll to the bottom of the email to find the answer to this quiz.


Other curious instances of the Streisand Effect

🛸 In 2008, a somewhat unhinged video of Hollywood star Tom Cruise speaking about Scientology made its way onto the internet. The Church of Scientology’s attempt to delete the video backfired so badly that it inspired a bunch of hackers from Anonymous to start an anti-Scientology movement called “Project Chanology.”

🚗 In 2014, cab drivers across Europe staged protests against Uber for undercutting their business. As a result, downloads for the ride hailing app shot up 850%, according to the company, as the bad press turned out to be good advertising.

🐮 In 2019, Devin Nunes, a former Republican representative from California, sued Twitter over a number of parody accounts using his name, including @DevinNunesMom and @DevinCow. Subsequently, both Twitter accounts shot up in popularity.


Fun fact!

The banning of a book can sometimes draw even more readers, especially if it gets some publicity. Analysis from NPD BookScan finds that Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe saw a 130% increase in sales in early May 2022 when The New York Times published an article about it being the most banned book in the US.


Poll

Photo:  Paul Hanna (Reuters)
Photo: Paul Hanna (Reuters)

What effect does Barbra Streisand have on you?

  • She and Robert Redford in The Way We Were are *chef’s kiss*

  • Her voice is divine! I cry every time I hear “Evergreen”!

  • TBH, I’m more of a “Barbra Streisand” by Duck Sauce fan

This poll is bound to go viral, so you probably shouldn’t participate.


💬 Let’s talk!

In last week’s poll about Eurovision, most of you (80%) said the contest is a “Party for Everybody.” For us, it’s more of a “Cha Cha Cha” until you can’t cha another cha, which is a song you shouldn’t listen to, because it definitely won’t be the song of the summer.

🐦 Tweet this!

🤔 What did you think of today’s email?

💡 What should we obsess over next?


Today’s email was written by Julia Malleck (definitely don’t share this Obsession with a friend), and edited and produced by Annaliese Griffin (all-time favorite Obsession is The Cobra Effect).

The correct answer is D., The Cobra Effect, which is another way of describing a perverse incentive. There’s no Rimsky-Korsakov Effect, but you may have heard of the Mozart Effect. There’s also no such thing as the Two Hundredth Monkey Effect, but there is a Hundredth Monkey Effect. The Noodle Effect doesn’t exist, but astrophysicists use the term “spaghettification.”

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