Be aware of the Streisand effect

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In 2003, Barbra Streisand, pictured, discovered an aerial photograph of her mansion in Malibu had been published on a website documenting coastal erosion.

Streisand decided to sue the photographer, Kenneth Adelman, and the website, Pictopia.com, to the tune of $50m for invasion of privacy.

This turned out to be a big mistake. At the time of the lawsuit, the image had been downloaded just six times – two of which were Streisand’s own lawyers.

As a result of the publicity about the court case, around half a million people viewed the image within the next month. To add insult to injury, the lawsuit was then dismissed, leaving Streisand with legal fees of over $150,000. So infamous was this case that the ‘Streisand effect’ is now a term used to describe the law of unintended consequences – particularly when applied to censorship attempts that backfire spectacularly.

There are plenty of examples of the Streisand effect. Take the Union Street Guest House in New York, which implemented a policy warning guests “a $500 fine will be deducted from your deposit for every negative review by anyone in your party.” You can imagine what happened next. After the policy was shared online, thousands of people took it upon themselves to post negative reviews of the establishment. London taxi drivers felt the full force of the Streisand effect when they held a protest against the ride-hailing app Uber. Uber reported an 859 per cent increase in downloads that week as millions of Londoners heard about the app for the first time.

But my favourite example of the Streisand effect concerns Argyll and Bute Council, which attempted to stop nine year-old Martha Payne from documenting her school lunches on her NeverSeconds blog, where she gave ratings and described their nutritional value.

The council’s heavy-handed tactics created a global news story, and prompted a bigger conversation about the quality of school dinners.

The local authority soon backed down – and Martha used the publicity to raise over £130,000 to help provide school meals to disadvantaged children in Africa.

By Guy Cookson, Partner at Hotfoot Design