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Blame Barbra Streisand: the curious effect that explains why a graphic novel with a gay kiss sold out in a matter of hours

By Fernando Duarte - BBC World Service

12/09/2019 08h30

Named after a court case involving the American entertainer, the Streisand effect explains the phenomenon of censorship attempts having the opposite result by publicising a sensitive piece of information. Here are some recent examples.

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What could Barbra Streisand and the Avengers have in common?

One is a famed American singer and actress, while the other is a popular comic book and a top-grossing movie franchise.

But Streisand's name came to mind when a censorship controversy engulfed the Brazilian press last week.

Rio de Janeiro's conservative mayor Marcelo Crivella has tried to ban an Avengers comic book because it features a gay kiss between two male superheroes.

After the mayor's interjection, however, the book quickly sold out at Brazil's biggest literary fair.

The censorship row turned out to be a prime example of the the Streisand Effect: Sometimes when you try to dissimulate something, you may ironically end up attracting plenty of attention on it.

Privacy lawsuit

It all goes back to March 2003, when the megastar sued amateur photographer Kenneth Adelman, claiming he had violated her privacy by displaying a picture of her mansion in California.

The image was part of a batch of 12,000 photographs Adelman had uploaded to a site in which he wanted to document the effects of erosion and property development along California's coastline.

Streisand, nevertheless, asked for $50 million in damages.

But a judge dismissed the case and ordered Barbra Streisand to cover the photographer's $150,000 legal costs.

The photograph, which had only been accessed six times during the lawsuit, turned into a viral phenomenon. Adelman's site was viewed 420,000 times just in the month of April 2003 alone.

Tunisian ban

In November 2007, Tunisia's former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali blocked access to YouTube and DailyMotion with the aim of suppressing video information on the country's political prisoners.

The move backfired.

Activists started linking videos about civil liberties to the image of the presidential palace on Google Earth.

The censorship attempt fed into the public discontent, which eventually led to the Arab Spring protests in 2011, forcing Ben Ali to resign and flee the country.

Similarly, a crackdown on internet blogs in Armenia in 2008 led to a major surge in page views critical of the government in sites hosted outside the country.

Beyoncé photos

The Streisand effect is never far from celebrities.

In 2013, Buzzfeed.com was contacted by a representative of the US singer Beyoncé Knowles, who asked the site to remove her "unflattering" pictures.

Buzzfeed.com refused to comply and instead created a photo gallery titled "The "Unflattering" Photos Beyoncé's Publicist Doesn't Want You To See".

It generated enough excitement for the shots to become a source of funny memes - exactly what the singer's staff had tried to avoid.

A lion's share of bad publicity

Rights group Avaaz found itself at odds with South African authorities in 2013 when it put up controversial poster ads in Johannesburg Airport to highlight a campaign to end the lion bone trade with Asia.

The posters showed various images of lions under threat, all accompanied by a picture of the then-president Jacob Zuma.

The government-owned airport authority ACSA swiftly removed them.

Avaaz in return went to court to overturn that decision.

In October that year the High Court ruled that ACSA had acted unconstitutionally, by which time the posters had been all over the media in South Africa and abroad.

Uber gets a ride

In June 2014, a massive protest took place in the streets of London by taxi drivers who were unhappy with the arrival of Uber, the app that allows online taxi-hailing, in the British capital.

A huge number of licensed taxi drivers brought traffic in key areas of London to a standstill.

The ridesharing company, however, reported an increase of 850% in downloads of the app - during the protest.

London happens to be Uber's biggest market in Europe, with over 3,5 million users, according to company data.

Blurred and revealed

Russian internet giant Yandex was involved in a more sensitive case of the Streisand effect last year.

Like many other companies, it follows requests from governments to doctor satellite images in order to protect strategic sites.

Normally, services like Google Maps reduce the resolution of the images.

Yandex however went a bit further by blurring out specific military installations in Turkey and Israel in their entirety, highlighting their presence rather than disguising them.

"Yandex's mapping service has actually revealed their precise locations, perimeters, and potential function to anyone curious enough to find them all," said Matt Korda, a research associate at the Federation of American Scientists.

The installations included two sensitive NATO sites.

"Yandex's actions are a prime example of what is known as the Streisand effect," added Matt Korda.

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