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Want to ruin your reputation? Get caught suppressing information

Neal Custer: Protect Your Assets
Neal Custer: Protect Your Assets

Businesses need to be transparent in their communicative relationships with their audiences, whether those are customers, vendors, or peers. Businesses should be aware of two things: a phenomenon known as the Streisand Effect and its logical extension into the psychological concept of reactance.

The former is named after Barbra Streisand. It reflects the effects of her unsuccessful lawsuit against a photographer who took an aerial picture of her home as a part of a large collection of California coastline photos. Before the case gained public attention, the particular photograph Streisand wanted to suppress had been downloaded from the photographer’s website only six times, two of which were by her attorneys. After Streisand’s attempts to suppress that particular photograph, the downloads rose to 420,000 in one month.

This failed lawsuit happened in 2003. This was four years before the first smartphone was announced, two years before the launch of YouTube and one year before the launch of Facebook. The landscape of the internet was drastically different than it is today, yet the act of trying to suppress a single photo still led to an almost overnight backlash.

It requires no stretch of the imagination to assume that the Streisand Effect is not only present in today’s communication but may be amplified thousands of times because of the level of social-media interconnection we’re faced with daily.

This brings me to the psychological concept of reactance. As its name suggests, reactance is a motivated reaction to anything that could remove behavioral choices or freedoms, or that attempts to force a person to adopt a given viewpoint.

As seen in teenagers everywhere, restrictions lead to rebellion. Even incidents that a person normally would not care about — such as a completely uninteresting photograph of Barbra Streisand’s house — suddenly become personal matters of extreme importance. With the ubiquity of social media and file sharing, it’s impossible to make anything simply go away online even in a neutral situation. But if you are caught in the act of trying, you will drive your audience to try to spread what you want to suppress.

This further reinforces the need for transparency in business conduct. Work with your audience, not against it. Talk to your audience members about their concerns openly and publicly. Make fixes visible.

Never try to sweep things under the rug, because the moment the internet gets a whiff of information suppression is the moment people sink their teeth in like rabid bulldogs and fight your suppression. Take it from Barbra Streisand: a Google search for “Streisand” ranks an article about the Streisand Effect above her actual Facebook page.

For more details on reactance and how to avoid it, visit our blog at, where we will be posting a video that looks at how the wrong kind of advertising can provoke reactance and hurt your business.

Neal Custer is president of Reveal Digital Forensics & Security, a subsidiary of Custer Agency Inc., and an adjunct professor at Boise State University. Written in collaboration with Dylan Evans, Reveal’s vice president of operations.

A follow-up note

In last month’s column, we went into detail on a case we’ve recently worked where a disgruntled job applicant lashed out against a business owner online, doing everything from creating fake identities to leaving false reviews, forging threatening emails from the business owner and then attempting to take them to the police.

While this article was almost universally well-received, a few readers accused us of simply making up a story. Rest assured, the story was true. We will be interviewing this business owner directly in a followup. We will provide the real business name and details and get the owner’s feedback on how the incident affected his business, as well as any advice he might offer to someone in a similar position.

Look forward to this followup within the next few months.