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The Streisand Effect: When censorship makes a bad situation worse

I learned about the Streisand Effect this week.

It’s a fascinating insight into the impact of attempted censorship.

And this week, the Scottish Government have found out about it the hard way.

At the third time of asking, Deputy First Minister John Swinney published crucial legal guidance.

The documents were regarding sexual assault allegations against former First Minister Alex Salmond.

And due to the attention drawn to the story, their publication has received more coverage than they would have initially.

Read on.

What is it?

barbra streisand, pink elephant communications, streisand effect

The Streisand Effect comes from a court case involving the singer Barbra Streisand.

In 2003, she sued a photographer for publishing an aerial image of her Malibu home as part of a project.

Court documents showed the photo had been downloaded a total of six times.

After the star’s legal actions were made public, the image received over 400,000 hits in a month.

And the act of attempted suppression caused the story to become much bigger.

In 2017, the Government of South Africa announced their plan to ban a new book.

The President’s Keepers detailed alleged corruption under the regime of former leader Jacob Zuma.

News of the ban saw it become the best-selling book in South African history.

And as recently as October, Twitter’s decision to block an alleged story about Joe Biden’s son only led to the article getting more clicks.

So let’s apply the Streisand Effect to Tuesday’s story emerging from the Scottish Government.

Making a bad situation worse

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I’ll steer clear of giving opinions on the political issues surrounding the Alex Salmond story.

What I’ll address here is the communication and the decision-making behind it.

On two occasions, politicians voted for the Scottish Government to publish its legal advice.

And on both occasions, in August and then in November, the vote was turned down.

Each time drawing more attention to the documents in question.

The legal advice was finally released on Tuesday.

Within minutes, it became the lead item in dozens of media outlets.

It was the top story in the evening’s national news bulletins.

This is highly unlikely to have been the case had the Scottish Government published it at the first time of asking.

I understand the leadership felt the legal documents were ‘confidential’.

But the perception from outside was that of censorship.

Something secretive the Scottish Government wanted to keep quiet.

Even if the truth was far simpler.

Where communication and psychology collide

streisand effect, pink elephant communications, colin stone

There’s a lesson in this for all of us.

Attempted censorship can backfire badly.

And as humans, when we’re aware something is being kept from us, we become motivated to discover what that is.

So remember Barbra Streisand the next time you consider making a mountain of a molehill.

And if you need media advice in times of crisis, write to us at 

Since 1989, we’ve helped companies stand up to journalists during tough times.

Let us help you.


Colin Stone is Communications Lead at Pink Elephant. 

You can read his full profile here.


Featured image in The Streisand Effect by Scottish Government on / CC BY.
Other images in The Streisand Effect by Pink Elephant Communications / JCT(Loves)Streisand* / CC BY-ND / Scottish Government / CC BY on

Streisand Effect blog

2nd March 2021 Featured in: Blog, Commentary, Media training blogs By:

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