The Streisand Effect Says Censoring Information Will Probably Backfire

Remember the infamous Sony email leak of 2014? It happened because the government of North Korea heard that Sony was releasing "The Interview," a comedy about North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Hackers from the country leaked Sony's corporate emails and threatened to bomb theaters that showed the film. Sony eventually pulled the film from theaters but released it online, and many independent theaters picked it up and screened it. The irony is that the film was lousy — it was panned by The New York Times, and has a dismal 52 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But because it was central to such a dramatic controversy, many, many more people watched the movie than would have otherwise. That's the Streisand effect: the phenomenon by which something you try to cover up becomes even more visible than it was in the first place.

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People, People Who Need Lawyers

The effect is named after legendary singer and actor Barbra Streisand. In 2003, photographer Kenneth Adelman took more than 12,000 aerial photos of California's eroding coastline and posted them to a photography site. Somehow, Streisand found that the photos included an image of her clifftop mansion in Malibu, and the performer sued. According to Bloomberg, she alleged "that the photo invaded her privacy, violated the state's anti-paparazzi statute and tried to profit from her name. She sought damages of more than $10 million, which she generously offered to donate to charity."

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Before the lawsuit, the photo had only six downloads — two of which were by Streisand's own lawyers. After the suit made headlines, 420,000 people visited the photo site to see the images in the first month alone. Streisand's lawsuit was dismissed, she had to pay Adelman's six-figure legal fees, and the photo of her estate has now been seen millions of times. Whoops.

The image of Streisand's Malibu house that led to the naming of the effect

It Spreads Like Wildfire

Censorship has always had a tendency to backfire — just consider the long history of attempts to ban controversial books, many of which are now classics. But with the internet, that backfire has even more force behind it. The Streisand effect has ignited a popularity in internet piracy, spread unflattering pictures of Beyoncé, and inadvertently led to $220,000 donated to charity. In 2014, before Uber was a household name, taxi drivers in several European cities protested the rideshare app and caused an 850 percent increase in new Uber users.

Related: The Framing Effect Shows How Word Choice Affects Your Decisions

If it's not already obvious, censoring backfires because people love forbidden fruit. People are curious by nature (we don't have to tell you that!), and if you tell them they can't do something, they'll want to do it — especially on the internet. As Andy Greenberg put it in Forbes, "A Web user and his information are like a grizzly and her cub. Come between them, and you're likely to get mauled."

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Barbra Streisand arriving at a formal celebrity event

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The Streisand Effect: Trying To Hide Things On The Internet

Three Laws of The Internet Explained

Key Facts In This Video

  1. Godwin's Law states that the longer an argument goes on, the more likely it is that one side will call the other a Nazi or compare them to Hitler. The person who made the comparison automatically loses the argument and the conversation should cease. 02:33

  2. Lewis's Law states that the comments left on anything about feminism will justify feminism. 05:16

  3. Poe's Law states that on the internet, unless the author's intent is clearly communicated, parodies of extremism will be mistaken for honest extremism, and vice versa. 08:19

Written by Ashley Hamer April 7, 2017

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