BBC, PM Modi, and the Streisand effect. Or, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it

The Streisand effect is a phenomenon where an attempt to censor or hide something only serves to attract more attention to it.

ByArkadev Ghoshal

Published Feb 02, 2023 | 8:00 AMUpdated Feb 02, 2023 | 8:00 AM

BBC, PM Modi, and the Streisand effect. Or, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it

What connects a photograph of the California coast from the early days of the internet to a cartoon against Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee from her earliest days as the chief minister of West Bengal and the current brouhaha over the BBC documentary on Prime Minister have in common?

The answer is the origin and two examples of a social phenomenon — triggered by the internet — known as the Streisand effect.

And this phenomenon is becoming increasingly relevant when it comes to politics in general and political censorship in particular.

HCU BBC Documentary Screening

Students at the screening of the documentary at Hyderabad Central University. (Supplied)

Take, for example, what is happening with the BBC documentary India: The Modi Question.

The Central government banned it, took down all the links, and tried to scrub the video and its link from any place where Indians could access it.

However, people in several corners of the internet have been posting its links for others to download.

Meanwhile, students and certain political circles are holding screenings of both episodes of the documentary, which is the polar opposite of the result that the BJP and the Central government wanted.

And that makes this a great example of the Streisand effect!

Also read: Supreme Court to hear PILs on BBC documentary on 6 February

What is the Streisand effect?

The Encyclopaedia Britannica describes the Streisand effect as a “phenomenon in which an attempt to censor, hide, or otherwise draw attention away from something only serves to attract more attention to it”.

The term was coined by Mike Masnick of Techdirt while describing the very phenomenon that gave rise to the name.

In 2003, US singer and actress Barbra Streisand sued a photographer named Kenneth Adelman and the website Pictopia.com for $50 million, seeking the removal of “Image 3850” from the website.

It was an aerial photograph in which Streisand’s oceanside mansion was visible.

The lawsuit ended up being dismissed, and Streisand was made to pay Adelman’s $177,000 legal fees.

Interestingly, “Image 3850” had been downloaded only six times before the lawsuit was brought.

However, after people came to know of the lawsuit, more than 420,000 people visited the site over the following month, and the phenomenon was born.

Subsequent examples

Two decades since the phenomenon was named, several such examples have come to light across the world in general and India in particular. And celebrities have been at the receiving end more often than not.

Take for example the 2013 Superbowl event involving Beyonce. Buzzfeed thought she delivered a “fierce” and “ferocious” performance, and chose to buttress its point with visuals — images and gifs.

However, Beyonce’s publicists — or she personally — thought some of the visuals were unflattering and asked Buzzfeed to take them down.

Buzzfeed went the other way, writing another article with not only the “unflattering” visuals but also a screenshot of the email sent to them to take down these visuals.

As word spread, more and more people took to social media platforms to post one or more of these visuals. As a result, one or more of the images have surfaced on various platforms from time to time.

Here is an example:

India has seen its fair share of examples as well. A noted one came to a conclusion even as the BBC documentary controversy was gaining steam.

Kolkata-based professor Ambikesh Mahapatra was in mid-January acquitted in a case registered against him nearly 11 years ago.

He was accused of posting a cartoon that was critical of West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee.

His arrest and the case propelled the cartoon he shared to spread all across social media, with people emulating him and daring the police to arrest them.

To say Mahapatra’s ordeal was ironic would not be an understatement. After all, Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra has been at the forefront of the fight against the scrubbing of the BBC documentary.

Maybe this Streisand effect example is a good thing. It goes on to show how nothing is truly gone from the internet.

You don’t have to believe us. Just try searching for “Chaitanya Kunte blog post” on the web, for a critique of the live TV coverage — especially its flaws — of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks that was taken down as a news channel objected to it.