Quick, do you know who this is?

It is, of course, Barbara Streisand. Singer, and occasional actress, and one of the few winners of an Egot.

She also has the dubious distinction of having a famous type of manipulation fail named after her, the Streisand Effect.

You see, we spend more time on this blog talking of effective manipulation, but occasionally it’s fun to look at instances where manipulation has gone horribly, terribly wrong. And one of the more amusing type of these failures is the Streisand Effect. So what is it? It is basically a form of backlash. It was named in 2003, when a photographer took pictures of the entire California coast for a project on erosion. One of the pictures included a picture of Barbara Streisand’s house.

 

Nice pad. Shame about all the erosion.

Ms Streisand thought the picture was an invasion of her privacy (these were the days before TMZ), and decided to sue the photographer for $50M to force him to remove the picture. The Internet got hold of the story, and the story of the rich actress suing an environmental photographer into oblivion for daring to take a picture of her home struck a nerve. In one of the first viral responses ever, people started reposting the infamous picture of the home on all sorts of forum. Within a few days, hundred of thousand of people who would have never, ever seen the original picture on an obscure web site about coastland erosion had Ms Streisand’s home as their desktop image. This became known as the Streisand Effect, a term originally coined by Mike Masnick. Ever since then, the Streisand Effect has come to exemplify a whole class of manipulation failures.

For example, one of the more insidious manipulative legal techniques that exist in the UK are the so-called “super-injunctions”.

Like this one. But Super.

 

 

We’ve mentioned those before, but super injunctions are orders of the UK courts that not only prevent a defendant from talking about a case, but also prevents the press – and even Parliament! – from discussing the very existence of the case, never mind the allegations of the case. A super-injunction is nasty business. So, for example, Trafigura was accused of dumping toxic waste in Africa, killing a dozen people and sickening tens of thousands more. As the news of the dump began to leak out, Trafigura took out a super-injunction in the UK, preventing the media from discussing the illegal dumping, or even reporting the allegations of the investigators. At first, the gag order was successful – even though the press in some other countries began to report on the story, the UK press was completely silent. Even when a member of parliament asked a question about the dumping in Parliament, Trafigura’s lawyers used the super-injunction used to prevent reporting about it.

That was a bridge too far. The Streisand Effect came into full force. The Guardian, a UK newspaper, reported that it could not report on proceedings in Parliament because of a ‘special’ court order. That piqued every blogger’s interest, and within a few hours Trafigura began to trend on Twitter. Comedian Stephen Fry commented on the absurdity of super-injunctions, and, without a single media outlet actually defying the court order, within days the story was on every screen. Parliament, incensed at the gagging of its own proceedings, debated summoning the lawyers to ask for a public apology. Other Mps read the URL of the damning report in open session, to make sure that the report was available to the public. The court order was lifted the next day, and Trafigura became a poster child for how NOT to keep a story under the radar.

Another example of the Streisand Effect happened just last week, when media companies in the UK tried, yet again, to shut down the Pirate Bay. The Pirate Bay is the world’s largest Torrent site. With a few clicks on the Pirate Bay, users can download music, movies, books, and programs at will. It is the best-known site for file-sharing in the world. Various large media groups, such as the RIIA or the MPPA have tried for years to shut down the web site, suing it for copyright infringement, arresting the founders, raiding its servers, and many, many other iniatives. None of these attempts worked. The web site always found ways to stay online, to resist raids, and to continue serving files. Eventually the shutdown attempts spawned the Pirate Party, a fully-fledged political party that has gotten elected to the European parliament and the German government. With the Pirate Party protecting the web site, the different copyright groups around the world switched to another tactic: they tried to force ISPs to ban the Pirate Bay – to prevent users from reaching the site itself. If you were in the UK last week, for example, this is what you saw when you tried to reach the Pirate Bay site:

 

No. No Pirate Bay for you.

The music industry group BPI, which had hatched the strategy of forcing ISPs to prevent access to the site released a proud statement about their success last week. With the Pirate Bay blocked, BPI seemed to say, it was just a matter of time before people went back to buying CDs and this whole file-sharing problem was behind them. Of course, they got a quick lesson in the Streisand Effect. In the days after the ban, traffic at the Pirate Bay spiked by 12 million visitors, as millions of frustrated ISP clients in the UK, hearing about the ban and incensed at the notion that an ISP could dictate which web pages they could and could not see, all found ways to bypass the ban. The Pirate Bay, not one to lose a good opportunity to gain traffic, helpfully printed a long list of simple ways to bypass the ISP block. Instead of blocking the Pirate Bay, BPI ended up advertising the site to tens of millions of users and giving them helpful hints on how to avoid that sort of censorship in the future.

 

You would think that media companies would understand the Streisand Effect, being that they are in media and all. Yet the Pirate Bay failure was but the last example of media companies consistently failing to learn lessons from history. For example, in the days of HD-DVD (the competitor to Blu-Ray), one of the main advantages of the HD-DVD format was that it was difficult to crack – HD-DVD disks were secure, whereas anyone with a computer could ‘rip’ a digital copy of a standard DVD. Studios were careful to keep the secrets of the HD-DVD format secure, to ensure that users could not extract the video files from the HD-DVD disks.

Strong. Secure.

On May 1, 2007, a hacker cracked the code, literally, and discovered the master key of HD-DVD, a large number that was the core of the HD-DVD copy protection mechanism. With the key, it would be relatively straightforward to design software to crack the encryption scheme of HD-DVD. The user posted the key to Digg.com, one of the largest sites of the Internet. A few hours later, media companies such as Disney and Warner sent strong cease-and-desist letters to Digg administrators, forcing them to take the post offline. Users of the site noticed that the post had disappeared, and a couple of users re-submitted the post with the key (Digg is a social aggregation site, where users post links to interesting sites). Administrators took the new posts down again, and threatened any user that re-posted the key with a ban from the site. Users demanded to know why media companies could censor a social aggregation site, and under what law? Disney and Warner responded that they “owned the copyright” on the key, and that anyone reposting it was infringing copyright and liable for damages.

That is when the Streisand Effect kicked in. Incensed at the notion of media companies claiming copyright on a number (which is all that the key actually was), users began to flood Digg.com with submission after submission, each of which reproduced the key in some creative way. Hundreds, and then thousands of links were created, faster than the administrators could even review them, much less remove them.

Digg's front page, a few hours after the ban.

Songs were made about the key and posted to Youtube, where they gathered thousands of views. The key was incorporated into pictures that were then posted to picture-sharing sites. Many of these posts were uploaded to thousands of other web sites, and hundreds of different programmers saw it and began working on the software to use it to decrypt HD-DVD. Within a few days, not only was the software to decode HD-DVD widely available, but millions of users were aware of it – and starting to use it – because of the Digg rebellion. Disney and Warner, by their heavy-handed approach to suppress a number, ended up converting the bulk of the users of one of the Internet’s largest site from harmless contributors to active, angry pirates.

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The Streisand Effect is very real. It is the sign that a manipulation has failed, usually because it was not very well thought out. In the days of twitter and peer-to-peer downloading, forcing something offline is becoming harder and harder. It can be done, but it requires a much more subtle touch than threatening “copyright infringement” or using super-injunctions. Nine times out of ten, the short attention span of the population mean that the best strategy is probably to do nothing – in a fragmented internet, even popular items drop out of the collective consciousness within days. Or, if you want a Master’s class, consider what Monsanto did when a research firm was preparing a damning report blaming Monsanto for the collapse of beehives around the world. Knowing that fighting the report would create a Streisand Effect of epic proportions, Monsanto simply… bought the research firm itself. The report disappeared from the conscious Internet within days after that. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how a master manipulator fights the Streisand Effect.