Understanding the Streisand Effect

How a private-property dispute birthed a phenomenon.

Posted Dec 20, 2019

In 2003, a picture of Barbra Streisand’s beachfront home hit the web as part of a public collection of images displaying coastal erosion. In response, in February 2003, Streisand sued the photographer for $50 million for invasion of privacy, claiming violation of a state law aimed at the telephoto lenses of paparazzi.

Ironically, the media attention surrounding the lawsuit made the photo of her house go viral (at least in 2003 terms). In the month before the lawsuit, the picture had been downloaded only 6 times, including twice by her lawyers—whereas the image was downloaded more than 420,000 times during the month following the lawsuit. This paradoxical result—where an attempt to silence, suppress, or stop something backfires—was dubbed the Streisand effect.

Let’s take a closer look at the Streisand effect.

Examples of the Streisand Effect

Here are three different times the Streisand effect was apparently reified by real-world examples.

In 2012, a Scottish schoolgirl named Martha Payne started blogging about her school lunches and included pictures of the meals, which, as could be expected by anyone who has ever been to school, were unappetizing.

Soon, celebrity chef and food activist Jamie Oliver tweeted out his support, and the blog garnered three million hits in two months. Consequently, local government authorities banned Payne from taking photos of the lunches because (they claimed) cafeteria workers were worried about getting fired. Even though the authorities quickly reversed this decision, for them it was too late, and the British national media and the internet ran with the story.

In 2013, Buzzfeed ran a list titled “The 33 Fiercest Moments From Beyoncé's Halftime Show.” Although the intention of the list was likely laudatory, some of the still photos were considered "unflattering."

Consequently, Queen Bey’s publicist contacted Buzzfeed to request that the unflattering photos, which were cited, be switched out. Buzzfeed responded with a follow-up piece titled “The 'Unflattering' Photos Beyoncé's Publicist Doesn't Want You to See,” which included an email from the publicist and the cited shots.

Subsequently, the internet did its thing, and a meme was born. Countless “unflattering” shots of Beyoncé as a zombie, powerlifter, anime cartoon, and so forth popped up.

In 2014, cab drivers from across Europe went on strike to decry the lack of regulation of the ride-hailing app Uber. Without cabbies on the roads, riders turned to Uber, with downloads of the app increasing more than eight times in London alone.

Deconstructing the Streisand Effect

In an article published in the International Journal of Education, Sue Curry Jansen and Brian Martin explained how the Streisand effect is a consequence of failed censorship attempts. These outrage-management processes include cover-up, defamation of the target, reframing events, false justice, and intimidation or rewards.

The authors also argued that censorship is a process that requires active maintenance to conceal the actions of powerful people. Furthermore, they wrote that a clearer understanding of outrage-management processes “stimulates awareness of tactics for challenging censorship by exposing its existence, validating the censored information, explaining the importance of free expression, not relying on official channels for solutions but instead mobilizing wider awareness and support, and resisting intimidation and rewards.”

By the way, you may be wondering how Babs's court case turned out. The chanteuse not only brought viral attention to her bluff-top estate by bringing the suit in the first place but the suit was dismissed in December 2003.