Why the Streisand Effect Is Misunderstood

The phenomenon, coined to describe censorship attempts that backfire, has been increasingly invoked online — from Donald Trump's legal threats to  HBO Max's 'Gone With the Wind' reckoning — but is it real?
MGM/photofest; Gilbert Carrasquillo/FilmMagic

On June 9, HBO Max temporarily removed Gone With the Wind, but what lit up social media was how the 1939 blockbuster subsequently shot to the top spot on Amazon's list of best-sellers. "Streisand Effect remains the most powerful force on the internet," tweeted Vox writer Matthew Yglesias. That the Streisand Effect was invoked is no surprise. In the 15 years since the phrase was coined to describe backfiring censorship attempts, it's become a favorite of the digerati.

In May and June, for example, Donald Trump's feeble threat over a CNN election poll; attempts by tech giants to do something about a coronavirus conspiracy video called Plandemic; and Netflix's yanking of an episode of Designated Survivor in Turkey have been tagged as examples of how suppression only leads to a stronger desire to see what's being suppressed. So popular is the term that during the first season of Donald Glover's FX series Atlanta, "The Streisand Effect" was the title of a 2016 episode featuring a nasty vlog that sets off rapper Paper Boi. In 2017, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary even featured the phrase in its “words we’re watching.”

But is the Streisand Effect an accurate way to describe how information commonly spreads? It asks us to believe that the would-be suppressors of knowledge either lack the tools or wits to achieve censorship. Neither is accurate. 

For the uninitiated, the genesis of the Streisand Effect begins in 2002, when Barbra Streisand learns that a photographer has captured images of her Malibu residence from high in the sky. The semi-reclusive star brings a lawsuit claiming invasion of privacy. It's unsuccessful. The court concludes that these distant aerial shots don't reveal anything truly private about Streisand nor do the photographer's actions constitute something that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person. In 2005, a photo of a urinal from a Streisand home then appears online. A takedown request is issued. That leads Mike Masnick, a writer for the blog TechDirt, to muse: "How long is it going to take before lawyers realize that the simple act of trying to repress something they don't like online is likely to make it so that something that most people would never, ever see (like a photo of a urinal in some random beach resort) is now seen by many more people? Let's call it The Streisand Effect."

It makes sense that Masnick of all people coined this phrase in 2005 of all years. The early aughts were a time when the entertainment industry was playing whac-a-mole with filesharing sites after battling Napster. Masnick, believing such aggression was destined to fail, was a vocal opponent of such activity by copyright holders. The Streisand Effect also came into our lexicon right between the launches of Facebook and Twitter. The advent of social media was a moment of great optimism for what the free flow of information in the digital sphere would mean for American democracy. These days, after privacy scandals, trolls and bots, and foreign attempts to use social media platforms to interfere with elections, Masnick continues to be a fierce defender of both the promise of digital networks as well as the wisdom in allowing these sites to largely exist free from legal intrusion.

There's another individual critical to the saga, though, and this person is often overlooked. His name is John Gatti, and he was the lawyer representing Streisand in the unsuccessful bid to suppress photos of her Malibu home. More than anyone, it’s Gatti's quietly good track record at keeping his clients' business private that convinces me that the Streisand Effect wrongfully steers people towards an inflated sense of the futility of information repression. Yes, the Malibu photos illustrate one of his efforts gone badly, but it represents more of an exception than the rule for this attorney.  How do I know that? A journalist's need to sometimes guard confidences restrains me from answering any further.

But Gatti is hardly alone.

By definition, we very often never find out about the successes of censorship. Even in instances where the truth eventually comes out, we have to ask ourselves what stood in the way of revelation happening sooner. How long did Harvey Weinstein keep his misdeeds under wraps? Weren’t U.S. voters ignorant about Stormy Daniels before the 2016 presidential election? Was there really a long stretch of time where the health risks associated with smoking weren’t acknowledged facts?

There's an alternative way to see the forces influencing our knowledge of things — and it's a view that recognizes a private judicial system called arbitration, a taxpayer-funded one that's ostensibly public where judges will often reflexively allow litigants to keep information under seal, and a federal bureaucracy where the meaning of "confidential" is expanding. (See last year's Supreme Court ruling in Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media, holding that the government isn't required under the Freedom of Information Act to disclose private information provided to federal agencies by businesses.)

These forces can be powerful. A couple years ago in the wake of Harvey Weinstein revelations, for example, I worked on a legal project to force more disclosures from arbitration outfits. One of the plans was to lobby lawmakers on this front. When approaching others to help assist such efforts, one society of news publishers not only refused, but they responded that they’d actively lobby against such transparency because they too had had secrets as businesses they wished to keep hushed in arbitration.

And that’s just in America. What about countries that keep a tight grip on information flow?

These days, it seems quite a lot is being labeled under the rubric of Streisand Effect even if upon closer inspection, the activity doesn't often match Masnick's original conception of the phenomenon.

Think about Trump's threatening June 9 letter to CNN over a supposedly misleading poll that showed him trailing Joe Biden by 14 points. Was the point really to get CNN to retract the poll and apologize? Or was the goal to claim the mantle of victimhood and circulate a more pleasing message to Trump's supporters? The fact that the cease-and-desist letter leaked should provide the answer. Sometimes, the goal isn't suppression but rather something that's sometimes related but nevertheless adjunct:  reputation management. Gone With the Wind serves as another example here. Warner Bros. could have pulled many DVDs and Blu-Rays from the Amazon marketplace had it really wished. But why go so far? Taking the film off of HBO Max was enough to achieve its real objective — demonstrating to the public its racial sensitivity.

Yes, there are times when would-be censors are in the midst of Sisyphean attempts to repress information. Hello, United States of America v. John Bolton, which seems like a decent example of the Streisand Effect even if what the former national security adviser had to say in The Room Where It Happened would have received quite a bit of attention regardless of the lawsuit aimed at halting its release. If Bolton ends up selling a lot of books, the publicity from the legal intrigue probably didn't hurt.

That noted, the biggest problem surrounding the popularization of the Streisand Effect is who almost always gets cut from the story of its "force." Efforts at repression don't fail of their own volition. No, and it's a dangerous attitude to assume censors always stumble towards some sort of comeuppance. Revelation takes effort and resources and savvy. Uncoverings require familiarity with the techniques of suppression and a willingness to stand in the way.  In short, whether or not information is buried or travels widely often depends on journalists, activists, and even lawyers putting up a fight to showcase the truth. Let's not forget them.

A version of this story first appeared in the June 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.