Millions of people around the world were outraged when a Tennessee school district thoughtlessly banned the Pulitzer-Prize winning graphic Holocaust novel Maus on World Holocaust Remembrance Day.
We should take heart, however, that this action immediately reaffirmed the karmic law of the internet known as the Streisand Effect.
This phenomenon was named after the great singer-actress Barbra Streisand, who dispatched high-powered lawyers to issue legal threats and cease-and-desist letters against an obscure website that posted pictures documenting erosion along the California coastline. Among the 12,000 images posted by the California Coastal Records Project were aerial images of Streisand’s home. Claiming that merely including those images in a database somehow invaded her privacy, Streisand sought $50 million in damages. At the time, only six people had downloaded the images.
Streisand lost in court and was required to pay the defendant’s legal fees. In only one month, because of the publicity her lawsuit inspired, more than 420,000 people visited the website.
What is now happening with Maus is only the latest demonstration of the Streisand Effect: In a democracy, attempts at repression generate publicity. And nothing makes intellectual property shinier than trying to forbid it. Commands like don’t read this book!, of course, make you want to read the book. (By the way, don’t read our blog!)
Shortly after the school board in McMinn County, Tennessee, voted unanimously to ban Maus (first published in the Eighties) from its eighth-grade curriculum, The Complete Maus anthology hit No. 1 on Amazon’s bestseller list.
The Streisand Effect, however, only works against ham-handed attempts to stifle speech. The danger we face today is the censorship we cannot see. Such hidden censorship, whether by universities, governments, large social media platforms, or private parties – quietly tucks away speech deemed too upsetting to established truth. When that happens, we’re all harmed.