In the online world, there’s a phenomenon known as the Streisand effect. It has nothing to do with her voice, lovely as it is. Wikipedia said it best:

It is the phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely, usually facilitated by the Internet. It is an example of psychological reactance, wherein once people are aware something is being kept from them, their motivation to access and spread the information is increased.

Here’s what happened.

For the California Coastal Records Project, Kenneth Adelman, a photographer, took pictures of beachfront property to document coastal erosion. There were ~12,000 California coastline photos. The Project was intended to influence policy makers. Adelman included an aerial photograph of Barbara Streisand’s mansion. Streisand filed a lawsuit for violation of privacy. The $50M lawsuit was intended to get the picture removed. Prior to the lawsuit, the picture of her mansion had been downloaded six times (two of those times by Streisand’s attorneys).

Streisand did not prevail.

As a result of the lawsuit, public knowledge of the picture exploded. The following month (in 2003), the photo was downloaded over 420,000 times.

Trying to render undiscoverable what was beforehand almost unknown had the paradoxical effect of making the problem worse – by orders of magnitude.

The Streisand Effect. Which brings me to Megan Welter.

Welter was an Iraq war veteran. She was also a cheerleader for the Arizona Cardinals. An All-American story. The media ate it up.

Until 2013.

Welter allegedly got into a fight with her boyfriend. She called 911 and reported him for domestic violence. She reported he smashed [her] head into the tile” and put her in a “choke hold with his legs.”

When the police arrived, her boyfriend showed video of the fight verifying that Welter was the aggressor. She was arrested and charged with assault. [Not sure how he was able to video the entire ruckus, but it was his get-out-of-jail free card.]

This arrest came days after a recent PR blitz pushing her narrative onto various TV and news outlets. That feel-good story turned negative. Stories of the arrest briefly dominated the media.

Last year, Welter hired a law firm to fix her reputation.

They filed a defamation lawsuit against many defendants, one of whom was her now ex-boyfriend. They asked for an injunction:

According to the order, [her ex-boyfriend] would “immediately remove from all websites, search engines, forums, blogs, lists, social media sites, and/or other forums of mass communication” any “negative statements” about Welter, including the 98 links in her exhibit. He also agreed to request removal of the URLs from search engines including Google, Yahoo, and Bing.

Because the ex-boyfriend did not fight the injunction, a judge signed it. And the law firm intended to enforce the injunction against various blogs and news outlets.

Now, free speech advocates have filed motions to quash the injunction. More importantly, the cat is out of the bag. What was likely a minor reputational challenge in 2013 is not a major news story dominating search for all things “Welter.”

The lawyer working to reverse the ruling stated:

that he wants to dissuade people from hiring unscrupulous reputation management services or law firms like [this one], which “promise easy fixes to reputation cleanup.”

The take home message:

Before pulling the trigger and flinging a lawsuit because of someone’s words, pause, and take a deep breath, and put on a Barbara Streisand CD. Most of the time, such litigation will convert a minor problem into a major problem. The lawsuit will be time consuming, expensive, and capricious.

There are better ways to manage online headaches.

What do you think?

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