Don’t Look: The emergence of Streisand criticism

October 2014

Streisand_EstateAbove: Barbra Streisand’s beach house

In the wake of the recent nude celebrity photo leak, I noticed something strange about the ways different publications skewed their coverage. Tabloid-style publications tended to be honest about their motives, referring to the situation as “scandalous” and often reproducing portions of the images outright in a bid to appeal to readers’ basest impulses. The behaviour of left-leaning broadsheet-style outlets, however, was more complex, generating page-view profit by promoting the images while denouncing tabloids for engaging in the very same practice.

In broadsheet-aligned Forbes, for example, a piece about the stolen photographsgenerated over two million views. The piece begins with a list of nine women whose photographs have been stolen, then proceeds to discuss, ‘without going into sordid details’, which of the women’s photographs have been confirmed as real. Later in the piece, the author links to five sets of images of Hollywood actresses that ‘sadly’ focus on titillating the male viewer. The article’s explicit intention was to argue that the ‘burden of moral guilt [is] on those who chose to consume said stolen property for titillation and/or gratification’. Yet despite their desire to condemn the vulgar coverage of tabloid publications, almost every hyperlink in the piece simply directed the reader more easily to that same coverage.

The same day, Daily Life published a piece by Clementine Ford titled “This is why you shouldn’t click on the naked photos of Jennifer Lawrence”. This article quickly generated over a million pageviews, for a whole host of reasons, but it is worth noting that the first paragraph contains a link to an image in which dozens of the women are named. On Junkee, a piece titled “Blame The Hackers, Sure, But Blame The Tabloids Too” was accompanied by exactly the kinds of images the author decries.

These kinds of pieces can be understood as akin to offense criticism, but they tend to go somewhat further. Offence criticism generally operates under the assumption that you’ve already consumed a piece of media, and attempts to explain why that content is so problematic that it should generate sustained outrage, ideally through sharing of a proliferation of thinkpieces about the content via social media channels. It is a self-sustaining form of criticism that primarily benefits advertisers on online news outlets.

The glut of broadsheet thinkpieces about the nude celebrity photographs had a slightly different effect. As the focus of the outrage is on content that the reader is encouraged not to consume, the sharing of these pieces of criticism inadvertently promotes the unscrupulous content in the name of fostering outraged responses to it. But what if the reader of the thinkpiece had come to it unaware of the reprobate content? In this case, the thinkpiece serves a strange dual purpose; both serving up links the reader can use to seek out the unseemly content, while repeatedly imploring the reader not to do so.

Urging others to look away is almost always ineffective. A decade ago, Barbra Streisand attempted to suppress the dissemination of a picture of her beach house. Until Streisand sued, almost nobody accessed the photo; in the month following the highly-publicised lawsuit, the photographer’s site would go on to receive close to half a million unique hits. In the years since, many others have found themselves burned by the “Streisand effect”, not recognising that attempting to convince others not to seek out a piece of media will only cause that media to rank more highly online.

In terms of what might be called “Streisand offence criticism”, it’s worth questioning whether or not publishers recognise what they are doing. The authors of individual pieces of Streisand offence criticism are almost certainly genuine in their intentions to turn readers away from offensive content. Publishers, however, must more clearly realise the true implications of running these kinds of articles. If the goal were really to draw attention away from offensive content, after all, the prudent move would be to publish nothing examining such content whatsoever. Not even a high-minded broadsheet, though, can simply turn away potential traffic. In the digital space, in which page views are of real short-term import and a “serious” publication’s reputation must be protected in the long-term, how to deal with morally discomfiting content becomes a serious business issue.

Streisand offence criticism has emerged as a perfect smokescreen. It allows such publications to publish articles that will draw in those looking for salacious and objectionable news on a “scandal”, while also ensuring the publication is never seen as endorsing or promoting the unscrupulous content readers are being ostensibly directed away from. This kind of criticism allows publishers to play a sleight of hand game, in which page views are boosted off the back of salacious content that appears to be principled and high-minded. If the reader or author never recognises the game is being played, all the better.

Streisand offence criticism extends in all directions, but it tends to be clearly designated: most pieces of Streisand offence crit are either prefaced by ‘Don’t’, or feature some sort of negatively expressed directive.  The Guardian, for example, recently published a piece titled “Don’t fat-shame Clive Palmer”, which allowed it to subtly promote a slew of pieces of media which do fat-shame Palmer. As with much of this kind of criticism, the Palmer piece is complex. It has almost certainly been orchestrated to gain social media traction by those who do enjoy making fun of Palmer, but it also allows the publication to deny culpability by suggesting that the piece was published as comprehensive instruction on how a reader should not behave.

Ultimately, the logic of offense criticism dictates that it must eventually turn upon itself. This is why coverage of the nude celebrity photo leak so quickly turned away from criticism of those responsible for leaking the photographs, and toward a meta-discussion in which the tabloids were criticised for their coverage of the issue. Now I am criticising the broadsheets, and somebody else will almost certainly criticise me. The criticism must move up the chain, until we are all both outraged and condemned. Maybe we should just be quiet.