The Streisand Effect

Two recent This is True stories demonstrate the “Streisand effect,” and this page brings those two stories together (plus a third from 5 years ago), and then leads to more commentary on the “effect.”

Let’s start with the first of the two recent stories, from True’s 8 December 2019 issue:

Don’t Have a Cow, Congressman

“It is self-evident that cows are domesticated livestock animals and do not have the intelligence, language, or opposable digits needed to operate a Twitter account.” The lawyer who told the Henrico County, Va., Circuit Court that was trying to quash a subpoena an attorney for Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) issued for records concerning the Twitter accounts “Devin Nunes’ Cow” and “Devin Nunes’ Mom.” The accounts are satirical, the lawyer argued, and, contrary to Nunes’s claim, their posts are not defamatory. “No reasonable person would believe that Devin Nunes’ cow actually has a Twitter account, or that the hyperbole, satire and cow-related jokes it posts are serious facts.” The lawyer urged the court to protect the anonymous speech of whatever human beings are tweeting as the congressman’s cow and mother. (AC/Sacramento Bee) …But would a reasonable person believe that a Congressman actually thinks calling attention to a Twitter account he doesn’t like is a good idea?

Which Leads to the Follow-up in this week’s (28 June 2020) issue:

Herd Immunity

U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) is still trying to sue over two satirical Twitter accounts, “Devin Nunes’ Cow” and “Devin Nunes’ Mom”. Judge John Marshall of the Virginia Circuit Court, which is where the congressman’s suit was filed, has ruled that Twitter — the deepest pockets in the case — cannot be liable under federal law. The March 2019 suit claims the Twittered taunts “almost” cost him re-election, and asked for $250 million in damages. At the time, “Devin Nunes’ Cow” had just 1,000 followers. With the news coverage of the case, it now has more than 741,000 followers. (RC/Washington Post) …If this keeps up, whoever is behind @DevinCow may win the next election.

Not a New Phenomenon

The first mention of the so-called Streisand effect in True was in the 23 August 2015 newsletter, which is included here for completeness:

Infinite Loop

The United Kingdom is enforcing a 2014 E.U. law allowing “the right to be forgotten” — the right of people to demand online search engines delete links to stories about themselves if the stories embarrass them. When the law was first invoked, news sites published articles about it; they had been alerted because Google notifies the sites affected. Now, people are upset that links to those news stories are keeping their names in the limelight. Thus, the U.K.’s Information Commissioner’s Office ordered Google to remove the links to the articles about the removals, too. Because Google notifies the sites affected, now there are articles about removing links to articles about removed links. (RC/Wall Street Journal) …You don’t have to be as famous as Barbra Streisand to suffer from the Streisand Effect.

The authors of the three stories are indicated by their initials in the (Source) area: “AC” is contributor Alexander Cohen, and “RC” is me, This is True founder and publisher Randy Cassingham.

The ‘Effect’

Alexander’s tagline was clearly foresighted, even if predictable by the Streisand effect. In that name-founding legal battle, Streisand sued for a mere $50 million for “invasion of privacy” over an aerial photo of her beachside home.

“Image 3850” includes the Streisand estate, which photographer Kenneth Adelman didn’t even know when he snapped the photo. (Photo: Copyright © 2002 Kenneth & Gabrielle Adelman, California Coastal Records Project. Released for use via CC 2.0. For this use it has been cropped slightly, and reduced in size and resolution.)

Before Streisand’s suit was filed, the photograph in question, which was taken to document coastal erosion by the California Coastal Records Project and known there as “Image 3850”, had been downloaded only six times — and two of those were by Streisand’s attorney.

Yet in the month following the suit’s filing, it was downloaded more than 420,000 times — and that was in 2003, when the Internet was still a struggling adolescent. The lawsuit was not only tossed out with prejudice, the judge granted photographer Kenneth Adelman $155,567 to pay for his legal defense. Of course, the suit also brought huge attention to Adelman’s web site, and boosted awareness of his warnings over coastal erosion.

Techdirt writer Mike Masnick coined the term in 2005, discussing a very different example of the phenomenon, and 10 years later joke-threatened to sue because people were using the term without paying him royalties.

That Was Then, This is Now

These days, the subject of such lawsuits put up a GoFundMe campaign to create a legal defense fund pay for lawyers …which helps generate “news value,” which brings even more attention to the case at hand, which brings new “eyeballs” to their work, which brings more attention to their Legal Defense Fund, etc. — or, as I slugged my 2015 story, an “Infinite Loop”.

Which brings us to the Twitter accounts Devin Nunes’ Cow and Devin Nunes’ Mother. The latter was shut down by Twitter once the news coverage pointed it out, because the account did not made it clear that “@DevinNunesMom” was a parody account. It was quickly replaced by Devin Nunes’ Alt-Mom, which did make it clear (with the “Alt” tag).

So you might guess what happened this weekend with news that Twitter was dropped from the suit, leaving only individuals: a new GoFundMe campaign was launched to pay for the two Twitter-users’ defense lawyers. The fund broke $30,000 …in the first 24 hours, and into six figures after that.

I’ve always said the Internet brought the “power of the press” to anyone with enough savvy to use it. Cases like this prove it. And I’m sure the ultra-conservative Rep. Nunes just loves that his case is considered a supreme example of an “effect” named for a notably liberal celebrity …who lost her case and failed her intent big time!

Important Comments Note

Comments must be about the topic discussed to be approved. Comments that argue for or against Devin Nunes (or any other politician or political topic) will not be approved, so save your fingers if that’s your inclination.

Update: Yes, I already know that Nunes later resigned from the House of Representatives to lead the Trump Media & Technology Group (parent of “Truth Social”).

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9 Comments on “The Streisand Effect

  1. “…Twittered taunts “almost” cost him re-election, and asked for $250 million in damages.”

    So, being re-elected is worth $250 million to him? At $174,000 a year, he expects to be elected to a 1436-year term?

    Politicians tend to get rich by means other than their salaries. Absolute power corrupts — absolutely! -rc

  2. Thanks for the history on this. I *was* into Twitter at that time, but it was more for news and world events. I didn’t know about @DevinNunesCow until Nunes began making a big deal about it, deciding to sue. *Then* I was all on board. I can’t say I’m a bit surprised that “Baah-bra” and her actions were the inspirational events for this “effect”. Few people handle power + popularity + money with dignity. Great piece!! Thank you!

  3. Once a name or an information enters the net, the person who put it there in the first place has no control whatsoever over its dissemination. Whether through honest, authorized sharing or outright information theft, spreading it is inevitable, and exponential. What Representative Nunes failed to realize is that he had nothing to gain and everything to lose by bringing attention to those sites. Why do I feel, Randy, that Mr Nunes would likely have been a recipient of a Stella Award had this happened a few years ago?

    You are correct! -rc

  4. Stars like Streisand, celebrities of various types, and politicians like Nunes (and ones far more famous and/or powerful) do not allow dissent or disagreement within their orbits, so there’s no one willing to say, “Compare the small amount of harm being done to the large amount of ridicule you’ll get if you take action.”

    I’m very grateful that I’ve never taken a job in which my employment depended on 100% agreement with the employer. No “obedience without question” for me.

    Well, then you’re a normal American. The truly sad part is how many are willing to trade in their independence for the ass-kissing that those types of people require from their sycophants. -rc

  5. You wrote “I’ve always said the Internet brought the “power of the press” to anyone with enough savvy to use it.” This reminds me of the saying attributed to Abbie Hoffman that “Freedom of the press belongs to whoever owns one”.

    Given the fact that any idiot can not only post any sort of bilgewater on the ‘net, but have millions of folks forwarding it within days of posting, I’d say that “savvy” isn’t a word I’d use.

    Indeed, anti-Social Media has made it easy even for the obliviots. Things evolve, and not always to good ends. -rc

  6. Have you considered the possibility that Streisand filed a suit she knew would fail to bring attention to coastal erosion? I say failed, but perhaps her lawsuit succeeded in its goal of people taking coastal erosion more seriously. And, as a bonus, she got her name attached to a cultural term. She’s crying all the way to the bank!

    No, because it’s way too far-fetched. -rc

  7. You know, I always wanted to create a parody account of my own (working title was Devin Nunes’ Sense of Humor), with the intention of getting journalists to add “___ could not be reached for comment” to their pieces.

    Sadly, I could never figure out how to spread word of the account without tweeting, the lack of which would have been the entire rest of the joke.

    You’d pretty much have to know a journalist or 12 in that space who enjoyed the joke, and that’s a tough order! -rc

  8. I’m reminded of the story of Disney’s run-in with the Streisand Effect back in the 1980s. I heard the story from director John Musker and had to share it, and here it is for your amusement.

    An excellent story, well told. But it’s also a great story of what happens when the leader in a space doesn’t trust its own power, and lets another company’s failure drive how they want to be viewed. Katzenberg “could have” instead worked to claim the high ground and show Paramount “how it’s done,” but noooooooo. (Must I utter the incantation, “Jeremy Brett and Benedict Cumberbatch, save us!”?) -rc


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