Though they were both born in the ’40s, lived in New York, and have both been massively visible American entertainers, it would have been difficult to imagine that Barbra Streisand and Donald Trump had much in common. And yet, last week, the president of the USA, with all the intelligence at his disposal and with his finger on a big button on his desk — much bigger than any button anywhere on any desk in North Korea, for instance — proved that he has about as much understanding of the digital web as Streisand. Because when Trump came to know about the explosive book Fire and Fury by journalist Michael Wolff, he decided to issue a cease-and-desist order in an attempt to stop people from accessing it. Little did he know that, in effect, he was participating in something called the Streisand effect.
This popular digital phenomenon is named after the American celebrity Barbra Streisand, who, in 2003, decided to fight the internet to suppress pictures of her residence in Malibu, California. Her persistent, slightly over-the-top and dramatic attempts at keeping those pictures off the internet — including cease-and-desist letters to remove files, websites and numbers of the internet — led to an increased and unexpected interest in her house. More people shared it than they would have, if she had left the original posts alone. The emerging social media of the early 2000s found the entire incident so hilarious that the more Streisand tried to hide the pictures, the more visibility they gave it — with concentrated media attention and extensions like videos, spoof songs, and entire file-sharing networks created for no other reason but to share the pictures of Streisand’s house.
Since then, the principle is very clear. The internet was made to share information. No matter how hard you try, and how much power you exercise, information on the web will find its way around. This is precisely why law enforcement around digital piracy has been so inefficient. Most digital law enforcers will tell you that trying to stop information from being shared is going to be a technical impossibility. Because for every website that is taken down, and every network that is cracked, there are a hundred others which mirror this content and share it through new protocols which cannot be governed. This is also why victims of “revenge porn” online also find it difficult to get abusive and malicious content removed. Every time there has been an attempt to remove images and videos that seek to shame, blame, abuse and contain women and their sexuality, there have always been multiple nodes coming up to not only spread such content, but even increase its visibility and circulation.
This is why, most seasoned digital strategists now rely on education, behaviour change and a focus on ethical consumption, rather than suppression, censorship, or removal of data online. In our amped-up digital lives, where storage is almost infinite and distributed beyond national and sovereign jurisdictions, the attempt at trying to govern and regulate digital content is futile. Attempts to exercise old-fashioned power on the new, flattened domains of the internet are only met with ridicule and resistance. Despite these lessons, Trump decided that the correct response to Wolff’s book is an attempt to censor it. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Even before Trump had made his decision, the book was being billed as an explosive one. The excerpts from the book had already piqued media and reader curiosity. Once the initial hype around the book had receded, the book would probably have receded in public memory as well. It would, very likely, have been replaced by something else that catches our attention with every click. However, Trump’s attempt at trying to restrict the book’s publication has now ensured that a wide range of people, who might have heard of the book but never intended to read it, are now on their way to devouring it.
The book sold out on Amazon on the day of its release, and already has a two week pre-order list, full of potential readers. The websites show thousands of reviewers, who said that the only reason they came to buy the book was because the president of the USA tried to stop it. Streisand might not like the fact that her name will be tarnished by being associated with the Trump brand, but Michael Wolff and his publishers should definitely be sending Trump a box of chocolates — or maybe a happy meal — because he has just handed them the digital goldmine of this year.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.