What’s a good way to make sure everybody pays attention to your most visible and obvious insecurity?
According to bullying literature from places like bullying.org, it’s to give it more attention. Act confident, defy haters, and no one will ever know.
But if you’re dictatorial prime minister like Recep Erdogan of Turkey, the answer is to throw somebody in jail for two years because he made an Internet meme that accurately compared you physically to Gollum, the ring-seeking Lord of the Rings ghoul-thing.
Erdogan wants Bilgin Ciftci, a doctor who is already out of a government job for posting a side-by-side Erdogan/Gollum meme on the Internet, to receive two years in jail. At least that’s what the law is trying to decide even today—if being compared to Gollum is a pejorative at all.
This had predictable consequences: Erdogan’s face next to the homeliest of hobbits—a simple meme that garnered almost no media attention to outside of Turkey—became an international sensation last week. The beautiful new couple wound up at the top of Reddit a few times last week. It is unknown if Erdogan has the same habit for burrowing or the “horrible swallowing noise in his throat,” but he was condemned for the act by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson for taking away the freedom of a living person over the dumbest imaginable joke.
But the dumbest part of all? That Erdogan didn’t think this was going to happen.
He fell into a trap known as the Streisand Effect, named last decade for people who underestimate the secondary viral consequences of becoming too litigious over something profoundly inane on the Internet.
The Effect is named after Barbra Streisand (yes, that one), who sued an aerial photographer named Kenneth Adelman in 2003 for taking pictures of the California coastline. Those pictures just so happened to include Streisand’s home. She sued to make sure no one would know what her house looked like.
Of course, since the lawsuit was more frivolous than the pictures were newsworthy, the lawsuit itself became a news item. The most boring photograph in the world then became mildly interesting and, of course, exponentially shared. Streisand lost, obviously, and now the whole charade was so famous she had a cultural phenomenon named after her brief PR stupidity.
Now so does Prime Minister Gollum Erdogan.
TechDirt’s Mike Masnick named the term the first time more or less by mistake.
“How long is it going to take before lawyers realize that the simple act of trying to repress something they don't like online is likely to make it so that something that most people would never, ever see (like a photo of a urinal in some random beach resort) is now seen by many more people?” he wrote in January 2005. “Let's call it the Streisand Effect.”
Now, ten years later, he’s watching a government learn the lesson.
“Perhaps this is just one of the many dark aspects to it,” he told The Daily Beast. “I should admit, despite coining the phrase, I don’t catalogue every example of it, but it’s come to incorporate governments who have sought to quell information, certainly. Some attempts have certainly driven more attention than others. Turkey itself has kind of a history of slightly similar things. Turkey banned all of YouTube for a while because of a video insulting Turkishness.”
He’s not kidding, by the way. That’s how it was phrased in court. “Insulting Turkishness.”
But this is kind of a perfect example of the Streisand Effect in action, right?
“I’m a little torn on it,” he said. “It’s sort of blown up in his face, clearly, in this particular example. But to some extent you have to wonder if he cares that much about that aspect of it—the viral side of it—or if his goal is to scare off the next person from ever doing it again. This is going to have chilling effects on future potential or having legitimate criticism whether or not they recognize they backfire in a big way.”
That’s where the sexy viral angle of this story goes away: This is a real person facing years of a life in jail over very basic speech on the web. That’s the way government looking to clamp down on dissent get ruthless, oppressive power.
“Wanna tweet this joke? Wanna have to deal with a lawsuit from the government? You’re going to spend years of your life in jail,” he says. “The thing I struggle with a little bit: If you try to censor something on the internet, it tends to get more attention than that thing that you’re doing [that requires criticism]. There are lots more cases where it doesn’t become public or it doesn’t become major news. These governments, they do get away with it.”
Still, eleven years after this initially printed, Masnick doesn’t know how people haven’t gotten the hint: The likelihood of getting caught trying to suppress speech has gone way up on an Internet who can stir up real change (or at least real outrage). And it’s still your duty to upvote, tweet, or like to make the world very minutely, very lazily more just.
“This is an opportunity for people who see this story and are outraged by it for obvious reasons to do something other than just be outraged by it,” said Masnick. “It’s as simple as, this guy doesn’t want it, so here’s a thing that I can do without doing much of anything at all.”