The Streisand Effect — or, How Not To Do Online Privacy

Barbra Streisand’s Malibu mansion

I don’t often read articles on the British Royal Family, especially in the tabloids, but one news story caught my eye a few weeks back. Whether true or not, apparently the Duchess of Sussex was told by experts to abandon her ongoing privacy court case against one of the UK’s best-known red tops before she falls victim to the Streisand Effect.

If this guidance is prudent, and I’d say it is, the Duchess would be well advised to pay heed. And that’s because the Streisand Effect is no laughing matter — especially in today’s increasingly privacy-unfriendly digital landscape.

If you know nothing of this social phenomenon, other than its obvious association with Barbra Streisand, let me bring you up to speed. Spoiler alert: there will be more references to Babs’ music in this post than you can shake a microphone at.

In 2003, the chanteuse sued an environmental activist and photographer for $50 million after he shared an aerial photograph of her Malibu mansion on his website. Of course, concerned with her safety, she had nothing to be guilty of. The thing is, by then, the picture had only been viewed a handful of times. Once media outlets got wind of the case and whipped up public outrage, as they do so well, the views stacked up a mile a minute.

The outcome? Instead of burying the photo, the lawsuit made it go viral. And thus, the Streisand Effect — named by Techdirt’s Mike Masnik — was born. To rub salt in the wound, the eponymous singer lost the case. Talk about raining on her parade.

What a memory, huh? Since then, we’ve seen this phenomenon over and over. One great example from 2012 started with Scots schoolgirl Martha Payne posting pictures of her disgusting school dinners online. Local authorities stepped in, ordering the 9-year-old to cease and desist, but with an enraged public (including celebrity chef Jamie Oliver) behind Martha, the council was forced to back down.

One of Martha Payne’s school lunches

And we’ve seen the phenomenon recently too. You may remember Donald Trump filing a lawsuit against his niece, Mary Trump, after she published a tell-all book about her uncle and the family that created him. The US President obviously wants the problem to go away, but in attempting to make that happen, he’s only giving it free publicity.

It looks like the Duchess of Sussex could encounter a similar issue as Trump or the council in the Martha Payne case.

People really don’t seem to understand that when you try desperately to conceal information from the public, the internet fairies will somehow make sure it bursts free for all to see. What kind of a fool doesn’t get that the internet, like life, will always find a way? It’s bigger than us. It’s stronger than us. It’s smarter than us.

The internet is to information what the wind, water, insects and birds are to pollen. Just as these agents propagate pollen between plants, allowing them to reproduce, the internet facilitates the rapid dissemination of information.

Anyone who finds themselves at the receiving end of some negative online press has no chance. That stuff travels far and wide, and when it lands, it sticks. Once a juicy story is let loose, it could easily take a vast damage-control team working around the clock to rein it in.

The other month, I wrote about the permanency of information once it has been shared on social media. I argued that posting pranks on kids all over social media, although seemingly a mere bit of harmless fun, can actually be incredibly damaging. Doing so often leaves behind a shady “digital shadow,” I said, one that “never fades.” And it’s true.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex

Luckily, internet users are generally aware that some information should never find its way online in the first place. When it does, the buzz around the info in question tends to fizzle relatively quickly.

I’m sure the Duchess of Sussex is crossing her fingers and toes for the same result. After all, the personal details at the centre of her court case are just that — personal. Her dirty laundry isn’t going to alter lives in any shape or form. But considering the Duchess never captured the heart of most Brits in anywhere near the same way as her late mother-in-law, Princess Diana, perhaps she should consider lowering her expectations.

However, when information is deemed to fall into the realm of public interest, like when it includes details people believe they have a right to receive, therein trouble lies. In those cases, the folk in the spotlight can fully anticipate a generation or two before happy days are here again and they can claw back their privacy.

You see, control over information and privacy has changed hands over the years, and we’ll never be the way we were again in that respect. The public now largely pulls the strings, but looking at the number of censorship attempts that pop up across the globe, it appears the likes of Donald Trump and the Duchess of Sussex haven’t quite realised this. Nor have they realised the courts are no longer an effective place to fight for a semblance of the control they once enjoyed.

In today’s digital age, a new approach is required — a much subtler one that doesn’t involve charging in, guns blazing and demanding the world. Often, the best choice is to take a dignified step back and allow information to do its thing, moving across the internet until it eventually loses strength and becomes yesterday’s MySpace.

That’s certainly what I’d suggest to the Duchess of Sussex. Sometimes, as they say, the smartest thing to do is nothing at all. Only then will there be no more tears.

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