The Streisand Effect occurs when an individual or business’s attempt to censor someone or something goes horribly wrong, drawing more attention to the unwanted content.
At Minc Law, we help our clients with online content removals. So we are always mindful of the risks of bringing more attention to the very thing we are trying to get rid of on behalf of our clients. Over the years we have helped countless clients identify and navigate situations that could lead to unwanted attention for an already-sensitive matter and we know all the best tips and best practices to avoid these risks.
No matter how you look at it, the Streisand Effect can lead to serious problems for its victims. In this comprehensive guide, we walk you through:
- What the Streisand Effect is,
- How the Streisand Effect can negatively impact you or your business,
- Eight prominent examples of the Streisand Effect in action, and
- How to respond to negative and defamatory content while minimizing the risk of the Streisand Effect occurring.
First, we start with the story of how the Streisand Effect was born and how it works some 17 years after the term was coined.
What is the Streisand Effect?
When most people think of American entertainer Barbra Streisand, it is her music and acting talents that first come to mind. But the name, “Streisand” brings something very different to the mind of internet defamation attorneys.
Long after Streisand established herself as an actress and singer, she sued a photographer for publishing an image of her California mansion on the internet. What is important to note is that the photographer was not paparazzi trying to sell images to supermarket tabloids.
In fact, he was documenting coastal erosion as part of the California Coastal Records Project. The photograph of Streisand’s mansion was made available as part of a collection of 12,000 photos of the California coastline. The picture of Streisand’s home had a total of four views before it was brought to Streisand’s attention.
Then, things quickly went sour. Streisand’s attorneys sued the California Coastal Records Project and the photographer. They wanted a court order to get the image of Streisand’s home removed from the internet. The filing of the case backfired spectacularly – bringing widespread attention to the image. Within the first month after filing suit, the image was viewed by nearly ½ a million people – and in the months (and years) that followed, millions have viewed the image.
And thus, the social and psychological phenomenon known as “The Streisand Effect” was born. Not only did Streisand lose her case, but she brought unparalleled attention to the very information she was trying to suppress. Had the lawsuit never been filed, it is possible the image would still only have an audience in the single digits.
The results were unfortunate for Streisand, but a valuable lesson for anyone looking to suppress online content in today’s digital age.
Online Defamation Tip: Depending on the type of online attack you are facing and the party behind it, sending a cease and desist letter may be the most logical, economical, and efficient starting point for resolving your issue. Cease and desist letters are most appropriate if you know the identity of your defamer.
How Does the Streisand Effect Work?
At Minc Law, we strive to educate our clients about the risks of the Streisand Effect if they are interested in filing a lawsuit or remove content from the internet.
If we determine during your consultation that you are the victim of a defamatory statement, one of the first things we consider is how much attention the content has received. The last thing we want to do is take action that might draw more attention to the negative content (especially if no one has noticed it yet).
This does not mean that you are without legal options. There are plenty of steps you can take to remove or suppress negative online content and minimize any risk of the Streisand Effect. We will discuss some of these options, but first, we explain some of the negative and unintended consequences of the Streisand Effect.
How Can the Streisand Effect Negatively Impact You or Your Business?
Drawing unwanted attention to negative online content is only the tip of the iceberg. Increased attention to defamatory content can cause the content to go viral. Once content goes viral it can be difficult, if not impossible, to undo the damage. The scope of work dramatically increases to remove content from each website, significantly increasing the costs and time involved.
The devastation that results from unwanted attention does not end there. Consequences can differ between individuals and businesses.
What Can Companies Learn From the Streisand Effect?
The Streisand Effect can trigger a variety of negative repercussions for businesses, including:
- Unwanted media attention;
- The content going viral;
- Online harassment and possibly even protests;
- Loss of customers;
- Lost profits;
- Loss of accreditation;
- Ethical violations for professionals;
- Business closure.
What Can Individuals Learn From the Streisand Effect?
While the Streisand Effect’s impact on businesses is particularly dire, individuals can suffer terrible, unintended consequences as well. Some of the common outcomes experienced by individuals are:
- Unwanted media attention;
- Emotional distress like depression and anxiety;
- Negative career impacts like job loss or inability to find work;
- Having to retreat from or leave social media altogether;
- Deterioration of personal relationships.
You do not have to take our word for it though. Evidence of the traumatic impact of the Streisand Effect is easy to find (that is the point, after all). Below, we show the devastating impact the Streisand Effect can have on both individuals and businesses.
Common Examples of the Streisand Effect
While Barbra Streisand lent her name to the internet phenomenon, she is far from its only victim. In fact, others have suffered greater repercussions in the years since the phenomenon was first coined. The Streisand Effect poses a serious threat to individuals from all walks of life, from business owners to politicians, to churches, and schools. The Streisand Effect has been triggered by filing defamation lawsuits, attempts to quash negative reviews, impulsive emails, and unsuccessful attempts to settle disputes.
No one case is exactly the same, but they have all resulted in unwanted attention for both individuals and businesses alike. In the examples that follow, you will see how pervasive the Streisand Effect is, and how no one (no matter how rich or famous) can escape its reach.
Before we dive into the more serious and darker Streisand Effect examples, we start with a very recent (and admittedly humorous) example and unintended consequence of the Streisand Effect.
1. Devin Nunes vs. Devin Nunes’ Cow
California Representative Devin Nunes is no stranger to defamation lawsuits. Unfortunately for him, he is also no stranger to the Streisand Effect. Most of his lawsuits to suppress negative online content draw as much, if not more, attention than the original content he seeks to suppress.
One of his more prominent cases was filed against Twitter and a parody account claiming to be “Devin Nunes’ Cow.” The Devin Cow account is one of several Twitter-hosted parody accounts that poke fun at Nunes’ politics. His lawsuit (which sought $250 million in damages) gained media attention – with his pleadings made publicly available online. Nunes’ pleadings are worth mentioning because they illustrate what I will refer to as an overly-aggressive, claim-everything-under-the-sun approach to litigation.
I am not trying to pick on Nunes or his attorneys, here. The problem is that his pleadings were so lengthy, alleging every cause of action possible, that the news media published them – making Nunes look like a bully. While Nunes was already a public figure before his defamation lawsuit hit the news, it is possible his pleadings only fueled the fire.
The real kicker is that the parody accounts were not very popular before the lawsuit. Within 24 hours of the lawsuit’s filing, the parody account @DevinCow went from 1,209 followers to over 54,000. Today, more than one year after the lawsuit’s origin, the Twitter account has nearly 763,000 followers.
In June, a federal judge ruled that Twitter was immune from Rep. Nunes’ claims under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Not only does this reduce Nunes’ chances of recovering the damages he is seeking, but it also hurts his case against the other defendants. Twitter has refused to disclose the identities of the parody account holders – a detail which Nunes will need to continue his case to any avail.
2. Casey Movers’ Poor Response to a Negative Review
In today’s digital age, the importance of online reviews for a business’s success cannot be emphasized enough. If you are ever on the receiving end of a negative or bad review, please remember not to threaten the author as a knee jerk reaction. Also, do not respond to negative reviews with fake positive reviews! A Boston moving company learned this lesson the hard way after doing both in response to a negative review.
When a woman posted a negative review detailing her experience with Casey Movers, the company responded with a poorly written cease and desist letter.
The mover’s unprofessional letter to the woman (Mrs. Buckley) was riddled with grammatical errors and failed to address any of her complaints. They also gave Buckley a deadline to remove her review otherwise they would file a lawsuit against her.
Buckley felt unheard and infuriated by Casey Movers’ response. She started looking at some other reviews the company had online when she noticed something odd. A large number of positive reviews were obviously fake (generic names without photos, among other red flags). The company had also posted images of positive review letters that revealed private information about their clientele.
When Buckley discovered this, her husband started discussing the saga on his blog. He posted the cease and desist letter in an extensive post spotlighting their questionable online behavior. The post got thousands of views and media attention – leading to even more negative reviews. Once the word got out, the Better Business Bureau revoked the moving company’s accreditation for publishing customer’s private information without consent.
It turns out, Casey Movers’ heavy-handed response to Buckley’s review cost them much more than a single one-star review.
3. Samsung’s Settlement Offer Blows Up
Sometimes the cover-up is worse than the crime. In Samsung’s case, both were pretty bad. A serious design flaw in the Galaxy S4 smartphone led to the phones spontaneously catching fire. When one customer contacted Samsung to replace the flawed phone, the company demanded proof that the phone was defective.
Agitated with Samsung’s response, the customer posted a video on YouTube showing evidence of the defect. He complied with Samsung’s request, albeit not in the way they expected. He proved the defect, but he did it publicly.
Samsung responded to the customer with a settlement proposal, promising to replace the phone as long as he deleted the video and did not upload similar material. Aggravated with Samsung’s carefree response to a safety concern, the customer shared the settlement proposal in yet another YouTube video.
In less than a week, the video discussing the settlement proposal attracted more than 1.2 million views. The company had to offer a trade-in program for S4 owners, undoubtedly affecting their bottom line.
4. Union Street Guest House “Joke” Policy is No Laughing Matter
A once-popular hotel in New York’s Hudson Valley had a “joke” policy that generated considerable online backlash. In an attempt to be humorous the Union Street Guest House had a policy stating they would “charge guests $500 for bad online reviews.” But after the New York Post publicized the joke policy, the results were anything but funny.
Internet trolls took to Yelp and Facebook making more than 3,000 negative posts about the hotel. Many reviews were removed as “inappropriate,” but the damage was still done. The negative reviews and media attention took a toll. The hotel has since closed its doors to the public.
News Media Defamation Tip: If a news outlet has published something negative about you, suing the media for defamation is probably not your best recourse. News media outlets have many legal protections, making it very difficult to successfully sue them for content removal. Fortunately, there are still ways to potentially get negative news removed – like making an editorial request.
5. Church of Scientology Gets Hacked Over Attempts to Remove Leaked Video
The Church of Scientology has had its share of negative press over the years. But, one failed attempt to suppress a video backfired worse than they could have imagined.
When a 2004 video of Tom Cruise making a speech to other Scientologists was leaked on the internet people started making fun of Cruise’s claims. The leaked videos gained some attention due to Cruise’s notoriety, but the Church’s attempts to remove the video only drew more attention.
The suppression attempts resulted in the creation of Project Chanology, an anti-Scientology campaign that wreaked havoc on the Church. Hackers who backed the Project disabled the Church’s website. They also manipulated search results so that “dangerous cult” appeared as the top result when anyone searched for the Church. Protesters gathered outside of church buildings, drawing international media attention.
6. NeverSeconds: Primary Student’s Blog Goes Viral
The Streisand Effect is not just an American phenomenon. The Scottish Argyll and Bute Council found themselves in the news after banning a student from blogging about her school lunches. The student, Martha Payne, started a blog called NeverSeconds where she published photos of her lunches and rated their nutritional value.
The school banned Martha from taking photos of her lunch because cafeteria staff feared they might lose their jobs. The ban made headline news and quickly spiraled out of control. Not only did the school receive far more attention from national media but the local government reversed the ban.
Shortly thereafter, the blog reached 10 million hits. While the Argyll and Bute Council may have had to eat crow (pun intended) this is one example of the Streisand Effect that may have had a net positive impact. With all the media attention, the young blogger was able to raise over £130,000 for a non-profit that provides food to impoverished children.
7. Bret Stephens Faces Backlash Over an Email
Bret Stephens is a New York Times columnist who took a Twitter comment too far and found himself in the midst of a Streisand Effect scenario. After Stephens published an article on bedbugs, a professor from George Washington University (GWU) riffed on the content, referring to Stephens as a bedbug on Twitter. The infamous tweet received nine likes and zero retweets.
Stephens responded by emailing the provost of GWU, attempting to get the professor in trouble. The professor shared the scolding email from Stephens on Twitter and the post went viral – with thousands of retweets and nearly 50,000 likes. Unfortunately, Stephens’ email came back to bite him. Trolls from all over attacked Stephens online, even changing his Wikipedia page to “Bret Bedbug Stephens.”
Stephens kept his job and did not incur legal fees over the incident (which is a better outcome than some of our other examples) but his reputation suffered terribly. He has been repeatedly mocked and trolled online, leading him to delete his Twitter account.
Stephens’ case is a good example of the Streisand Effect, but it also illustrates why you should not shame someone on social media. His attempt to scold one of his critics backfired on him, leading to his own scolding and mockery.
8. Dentist Sues Over Negative Yelp Reviews
Celebrities and politicians are not the only victims of the Streisand Effect. Professionals looking to control their online reputation have also had their efforts backfire. One such example is the case of San Francisco dentist Galareh Rahbar, who sued a patient for leaving a negative review on Yelp. Rahbar did not make any other attempts to handle the situation and jumped right into a lawsuit.
The patient argued that her statements were protected under California’s anti-SLAPP law because they were made in a public forum regarding issues of public interest. The court agreed with the patient and held Rahbar responsible for the patient’s attorney fees (which exceeded $40,000).
Not only did the doctor lose her legal battle, but media coverage of the lawsuit also drew unwanted negative attention to Rahbar’s practice.
In 2020, years after Rahbar’s lawsuit, her name is still one of the first to appear if you search for “medical professionals” and the “Streisand Effect.” At least six negative articles appear on Dr. Rahbar’s first page of Google search results. The thing is, Dr. Rahbar’s Yelp rating is still a solid 4.5 stars! Rahbar’s response to her patient’s negative review appeared to spur even more negative reviews (which likely could have been avoided if Rahbar did not respond in the manner in which she did).
Long story short, the negative Yelp review probably would have been overlooked by most potential clients if Rahbar did not jump into a lawsuit against her former patient.
The Common Thread Between These Streisand Effect Examples
If some of these examples made you worry that you might be affected by the Streisand Effect, we have some good news. While each situation is different, there are some common threads among them all.
- Most of the Streisand Effect cases affect prominent public individuals, businesses, or governments. The more well-known a person is, the more likely the news of the case will go viral.
- Most cases involve trying to suppress content that is not getting a lot of attention in the first place.
- Many situations also involve an angry, impulsive response. The person or business owner may post a thoughtless response or make frivolous legal threats.
- The thoughtless or intimidating response then prompts news media coverage and/or trolling from a social media mob. This attracts attention to the very content that the victim wants to suppress.
- Often the lines are blurred between who is the victim and who is the bully. The person who discovers negative content about themselves or their business online will often feel victimized by the author of the content. The author of the content may also feel victimized by shoddy business practices or poor customer service.
Yes, these common threads are quite broad. As you can see from the examples, just about anyone can find themselves at the center of a negative media frenzy. But these common threads also provide clues for how to protect yourself against the Streisand Effect.
How You Can Avoid Triggering the Streisand Effect
The single most important piece of advice we can offer is to stop and think before responding to negative and defamatory online content. Impulsive attempts to censor someone else have a tendency to backfire, so do not act on impulse. Here are a few other important tips to protect yourself from the consequences outlined in our examples.
Analyze the Situation & Consider Potential Consequences
This tip may sound simpler than it actually is. Truly analyzing the situation at hand is a multifaceted process.
Who Are You & Who is the Defendant?
Your job and influence in life can increase your risk of the Streisand Effect. If you are a politician, for instance, you are going to be subjected to negative online content throughout your career. More often than not, statements made about you will be protected by the First Amendment. On top of that, threatening legal action against constituents who speak their mind is certain to draw more negative attention.
It also pays to know who you are dealing with. Be mindful of the type of website or forum in question. For instance, Reddit is a popular forum among trolls. Be very careful what you say in response to Redditors because you might have to deal with the wrath of a social mob. One person defaming you is often a problem that can be dealt with, but there is strength in numbers. Dealing with a mob of defamers is considerably more difficult.
Consider the Impact of the Content
Seeing anything negative about yourself published online is sure to inspire some frustration. But before you get too upset, take a look at how many views the content has. A negative comment that only 3 people have seen is not so bad in the grand scheme of things. Think of the example of Streisand herself – suing over an image that only 4 people had seen. Was that really worth the $150,000+ in legal fees? For most people, that would be a solid, “No!”.
Besides the number of views, consider how bad the content is (realistically). When Bret Stephens got angry over being called a “bedbug,” was that really the worst comment he has ever faced? Was it worth his response or an attempt to get the critic fired? As an opinion columnist, Stephens has most definitely been called worse than a bedbug. And unfortunately, his reaction led to even more insults and name-calling; harassment that could have been avoided with a deep breath and some thought.
Consider the Nature of Your Allegations & Measure Your Response Appropriately
We do not believe you should be a pushover just because the Streisand Effect exists. We help clients deal with negative content and reviews every single day. There are things you can do to deal with libel and other negative PR, you just need to be strategic about your pursuit of justice.
What you say matters! Before writing or responding, imagine what would happen if your words were made public. If you respond to someone with inappropriate or unprofessional language, your words will be used against you.
If you have ever watched a law enforcement show or movie you are probably familiar with the phrase, “Anything you say can and will be used against you…”. Well, that applies in a defamation situation as well. Not only can your words be used against you in a court of law, but they can also be used against you in the court of public opinion as well.
Try Removal Avenues That Are Less Likely to Draw Attention
Lawsuits are not the only way to get negative content removed from the internet. In fact, we have an entire article devoted to describing all the alternatives to litigation available to you.
You can send a cease and desist letter, although we recommend having it drafted by an experienced internet defamation attorney to reduce any risks. There are also ways you may be able to get the platform to remove the content. For instance, reviews that are obviously fake violate most platform’s Terms of Service and will be removed if you flag them.
If someone is sharing photos that you have taken you may be able to send a DMCA takedown notice to get the images removed for copyright infringement. Nude photos also violate most websites’ Terms of Service and may be removed by the platform directly.
Online Reputation Management services (ORM) are another way you may be able to suppress negative content without ever engaging with the person who posted it. In some situations, ORM may be the best way to deal with negative content that might otherwise trigger the Streisand Effect.
If You Must Litigate, Consider Your Allegations Carefully
If you must secure a court order to remove content, consider your strategy carefully. Speak with an experienced online defamation attorney to weigh your options and ensure your case has legal merit. You certainly do not want to make frivolous claims. Not only could they trigger the Streisand Effect, but they also will not likely sit well with a judge.
With the help of your attorney, try to think of all the claims a defense attorney might make. How will they attack your case? If the owners of Casey Movers had consulted with an attorney, they may have been warned that the fake positive reviews on their account would be ripe for attack. Also, a poorly written cease and desist letter that comes across as either bullying or unprofessional is sure to be brought up by the defense.
As mentioned above, any communication you (or your lawyer) have with the other party could potentially go public, so choose your words wisely.
And finally, work with your lawyer to come up with a contingency plan. Have a media strategy ready to combat the Streisand Effect if the worst happens. With a combination of ORM and public relations strategies, you may be able to minimize the negative impact of unwanted attention.
For further reading, we recommend checking out our comprehensive article walking you through how to talk to the media.
Work With Experienced Defamation Attorneys to Avoid the Streisand Effect & Remove Defamatory Content
The attorneys at Minc Law have removed over 50,000 pieces of unwanted content. Before offering any advice, we always consider the Streisand Effect. We work with clients to create the most effective strategy to ease the harm caused by negative content, ever-mindful of the potential for making things worse.
“I had a great experience all around with this firm. The paralegal, Dayra, was very responsive and helpful in coordinating zoom meeting within 24 hours. I then met with Brinton Resto and Andrew Stebbins. Both lawyers were knowledgeable and helping explain what I could expect from them as a law firm. They took care of my issue quicker than even I could expect! If I EVER have any problems with online defamation again, I will be calling this group for sure! Thank you Brinton, Andrew and Dayra!”
Katherine W., 18 Sept, 2020
While there are many benefits of hiring an internet defamation attorney, reducing the chances of triggering the Streisand Effect is one of the greatest benefits. If you are facing negative, unwanted content online, you can schedule a free attorney consultation by calling us at (216) 373-7706, speaking with a Chat representative, or filling out our online contact form.