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In 2003, Barbra Streisand made a grave miscalculation.
She attempted to sue photographer Kenneth Adelman for invasion of privacy. In the process of documenting the California coastline, he photographed her Malibu mansion. Adelman then included the photo as part of the California Coastal Records Project.
Adelman created the publicly available 12,000 photo collection in order to document coastal erosion. His aim was to influence government policymakers. No matter the intent, Streisand didn’t take kindly to the inclusion of an image of her home. She launched a $50 million lawsuit.
Before the lawsuit, “Image 3850” had only been downloaded from Adelman’s site six times, two of which were by Streisand’s attorneys. Afterward? Over 420,000 people visited the site in a month due to the resulting publicity.
As for the lawsuit, things didn’t go well for Barbra Streisand. The case was dismissed and Streisand subsequently had to pay Adelman’s legal fees totaling $155,567.
The Streisand Effect
The Streisand Effect happens when an attempt made to hide or remove a piece of information causes it to become publicized. This effect is a type of unintended consequence, where an action backfires and leads to the opposite of the intended result.
Psychologically speaking, people want things that are hidden away from them. Thus, they’re even more motivated to find and spread such information. When it comes to the modern age, the effect is magnified due to accessibility through the Internet.
But Barbra Streisand isn’t the only one to suffer from this effect. Other individuals, businesses, and institutions have also felt the negative consequences from trying to censor information from the public.
In 2013, Youtube user ghostlyrich uploaded a video that shows his Samsung Galaxy 4 catching fire. In the video, he explains that the company demanded proof that his phone was indeed defective before offering to replace it.
Later, ghostlyrich received a settlement proposal from the company that agreed to exchange his phone as long as he deleted the video, promised not to make a similar video, absolved Samsung of any liability, waive his right to bring a lawsuit, and never make the terms of agreement public. To top it off, a witness would need to cosign the proposal.
In response, ghostlyrich did the exact opposite of what Samsung wanted. He uploaded a second video where he shares the settlement proposal and explains how the company won’t deliver services in their warranty until the customer signs away their rights. As a result, the original video’s views surged up to 1.2 million views in a week.
The lesson here is clear: Attempting to cover up information will only make things worse.
How to Prevent Actions from Backfiring
While most of us don’t have information we want to censor, we’ve likely had well-intended actions backfire on us. Thought-out plans go awry, and the actual results differ greatly from what we expect.
With that in mind, here are three steps you can take to keep your actions from backfiring:
1. Study similar cases.
In many academic institutions, case studies are a popular method to examine in detail what has happened, along with the implications. A case provides details on an individual, organization, or event at a specific time and place.
The benefit to researching a case study is that one can examine a real-life situation and provide analysis and recommendations. When the analysis is compared with the real results of the case study, researchers use this feedback on their work. They then determine how to better approach future situations.
While you might not have a case study on hand for a plan you have in mind, there are likely people you know who have taken those steps before. What were their results? What would they have done differently? What course of action would they recommend, given what they know?
The drawback to case studies though, is that each case is different. You cannot, and should not, paint all cases with one brushstroke. So look at a situation, compare it to your own, and see what aspects of someone else’s case apply to yours.
2. Use the Devil’s Advocate method.
The devil’s advocate method has its origins within the Roman Catholic Church, where the Advocatus Diaboli (Latin for Devil’s Advocate) was an official position used to argue against the canonization of a candidate. The role was used to provide a skeptical perspective on the person to uncover evidence on why a candidate shouldn’t become a saint.
While you might fully believe in the endeavor you’re about to pursue, it’s useful for the sake of debate to take an opposing view. You get to see the weak points and flaws in your plans, and if necessary, adjust or reconsider. If you decide to go ahead with your plan, playing devil’s advocate allows you to develop contingency plans when things go awry.
A red team is a similar concept used to describe an independent group that challenges an organization’s effectiveness by providing an adversarial point of view. Red teaming has been used often in the United States military to provide perspectives from an opponent or partners’ point of view that challenge current operations and concepts.
3. Create a pilot study.
Pilot studies are useful for unrolling out new procedures and technologies throughout an organization. A pilot study is a small scale study used to test out a project before unrolling on a full-scale. When a pilot study can be used, it’s incredibly effective for observing and improving upon a design to avoid inadequacies.
On a personal level, you can create your own pilot studies at work and home. For instance, you can test out one piece of equipment or tool before purchasing more. Or, if you want to try a new computer update, install it on one computer before switching over on all your computers (I learned this the hard way).
Before You Act, Consider the Possibilities
Public social mishaps stem from miscalculating the effects of an action. And while you probably won’t find yourself being defamed on the Internet, you will find that your actions don’t lead to the results you wanted.
Planning is important. But it’s equally as important to figure out the holes in your plans. If there’s something you want to achieve, chances are someone else has been down the same path before. How you can improve based on the steps they took?
Plans are not set in stone. Circumstances change. It’s okay to pivot. When you open yourself to different possibilities, you begin to see things in a way that you hadn’t before.