What’s the best way to make sure a message gets heard?
Try to muzzle it.
Both liberals and conservatives are newly rediscovering the political power of this phenomenon, known as the Streisand Effect.
The term refers to what happens when an attempt to censor information backfires and instead unintentionally draws more attention to the censorship target. Its namesake is Barbra Streisand, who in 2003 sued a photographer for including a photograph of her Malibu home among a series of 12,000 aerial images documenting California coastal erosion. Thanks to the lawsuit, which was unsuccessful, this previously little-seen photo soon received enormous publicity and hundreds of thousands of views.
Plenty of other celebrities, companies and government agencies have come to rue the times they inadvertently publicized things they were trying to smother. Meanwhile, provocateurs and activists have learned how to weaponize the Streisand Effect, using censorship attempts to amplify their own voices.
After all, suppression of speech not only generates more public interest, as bystanders scramble to learn what all the fuss is about; it can also win the speaker sympathy and the moral high ground.
So far this month, there have been two major — and, in different ways, instructive — examples of political speech being amplified by censorship.
On Tuesday, during Senate debate over the confirmation of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as attorney general, Sen.?Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) began reading a 1986 letter from civil rights icon Coretta Scott King. King had opposed Sessions’s nomination to a federal judgeship, on grounds that he had used his position as a federal prosecutor to suppress black votes.
As she read King’s letter, Warren was stopped, scolded and formally silenced by Republican senators. The reason? She had apparently violated Senate Rule 19, which bars the impugning of motives and conduct of a colleague.
These senatorial snowflakes, it seems, were more interested in silencing speech they disliked than rebutting it.
Never mind that Rule 19 is rarely invoked, or that it seems particularly wrongheaded to shut down criticism of a senator when the subject of debate is precisely that senator’s character, conduct and suitability for another office. Whatever Republicans thought they were achieving, the primary consequences were to energize the left and make King’s once-obscure letter go viral.
Warren has not indicated that she was trying to goad her colleagues into silencing her. But she could have hardly conceived of a better way to magnify her message, or her own stature.
“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declared, in phrasing that seems perfectly scripted for a 2020 presidential campaign ad.
A week earlier, on the opposite coast, a completely different kind of character from the other side of the political spectrum appeared to leverage the Streisand Effect for less noble purposes.
Milo Yiannopoulos, Breitbart writer and sleazy professional troll, has built a career out of stoking Pavlovian outrage and censorship attempts from the left in order to build his audience on the right. He has mocked Jews, Muslims, African Americans, feminists, people who are overweight and the LGBT community (though he himself is gay), among others.
Clearly, the goal is to bait his intellectual opponents (not all of whom are liberal, mind you) into trying to forcibly silence him.
Sometimes you’re not trying to score. Sometimes you’re just trying to draw a foul.
Sure enough, Yiannopoulos’s opponents happily oblige, with heckles, threats and sometimes even violence — such as the riots that erupted at the University of California at Berkeley this month, which led to the cancellation of his talk and his evacuation from campus.
The riots didn’t silence Yiannopoulos, however; instead, the resulting coverage megaphoned his ugly message to a much broader audience and will help him sell more books, schedule more lucrative speaking gigs and receive more sympathetic tweets from our sitting president. (President Trump, under the guidance of former Breitbart publisher Stephen K. Bannon, has also proved especially adept at alchemizing liberal indignation into self-aggrandizing news coverage.)
There are many compelling arguments for why protecting free speech, including speech you disagree with or even abhor, is important. It’s enshrined in our Constitution; it is among the sacred liberal values we promote throughout the world; free and open dialogue helps advance scientific inquiry; and so on.
But one underappreciated argument is self-interest. Forcibly silencing and thereby martyring your opponents — rather than employing counter-speech to expose them as wrong or, better yet, ridiculous — may be exactly what they want you to do.