Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced a major update to the social media company’s advertising guidelines last week: Effective November 22, Twitter will no longer allow political ads on its platform. While some were fast to cheer the decision as good for democracy and others were just as quick to denounce it as an effort to stifle free expression, my immediate reaction was to consider far-reaching changes unrelated to social media. At the front of my mind is Barbra Streisand or, namely, the so-called “Streisand Effect.”
The “Streisand Effect” is a term used to describe the increased attention a topic receives from attempts to suppress it. In 2003, Streisand sued a photographer for including a photo of her oceanfront California mansion in a collection of more than 12,000 aerial pictures documenting coastal erosion. By suing the photographer, Streisand only drew more attention to the photo, accomplishing the opposite of her intended goal.
With Streisand, this social phenomenon worked to her detriment, but people and groups across the political spectrum have also harnessed this tactic to their advantage. While it's not necessarily the right policy, Dorsey’s announcement shines a light on how the right-wing media ecosystem has helped conservatives use social media -- more specifically, use ads on social media -- to their advantage.
For years, right-wing media have pushed the narrative that social media platforms are biased against conservatives, often pointing to rule violations and rejected ads as evidence.
Here’s how it works: A group or candidate will run an inflammatory ad that doesn’t meet a platform’s guidelines and wait for it to be pulled, which then provides fresh fodder for conservative media outlets. The would-be advertisers benefit from sympathetic earned coverage, and right-wing media outlets are able to buttress their narratives around supposed tech bias. While this isn’t unique to social media -- the Trump campaign has used the same tactic with its more incendiary TV spots -- social media ads provide a low barrier to entry that makes them ideal for groups looking to minimize spending while maximizing attention.
In 2017, the Center for Immigration Studies tried to promote one of its anti-immigration tweets. The tweet didn’t meet Twitter’s standards because it used the term “illegal alien.” Predictably, this generated a bunch of coverage from conservative outlets in CIS’ favor. The Daily Caller and the Washington Examiner both gave CIS positive write-ups that framed the nativist group as a victim. CIS continued trying to promote tweets in violation of Twitter’s rules and was eventually banned from promoting content altogether. This got the group additional coverage in The Daily Caller, Washington Examiner, and Fox News. Twitter ultimately retreated on this position, which got CIS a fresh new round of free publicity.
Live Action, an anti-abortion group, has done the same exact thing for years when it’s attempted to run ads on Twitter attacking Planned Parenthood. Lila Rose, the group’s founder and president, has made a number of Fox News appearances and even wrote a USA Today op-ed to claim that Twitter’s rejection of her group’s ads is proof of bias. In a collection of emails posted to Live Action’s website, Twitter outlined exactly what the group needed to do if it wanted to be able to run ads. Instead, the group used the rejection as an opportunity to fundraise.
When then-Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) ran for Senate, she tried to promote an ad on Twitter in which she said, “I fought Planned Parenthood and we stopped the sale of baby body parts” -- parroting a discredited right-wing lie about Planned Parenthood. Twitter pulled the ad because it violated the platform’s rules around promoted content “likely to evoke a strong negative reaction,” but that only resulted in her message getting even more media coverage than it would have on Twitter alone. Right-wing and conservative outlets including Breitbart, Fox News, National Review, LifeNews.com, and Washington Examiner raged at Twitter’s decision. Outlets including The Hill, The Washington Post, and The Associated Press covered the story as well. Twitter responded to the backlash by reversing its ruling and commenting to Politico, “While we initially determined that a small portion of the video used potentially inflammatory language, after reconsidering the ad in the context of the entire message, we believe that there is room to refine our policies around these issues.”
Twitter has always had different standards for content that is allowed to simply exist on the platform and content that is allowed to be promoted into people’s timelines. By removing the ability to promote political tweets as a whole, it’s opting out of one ongoing headache -- among many others -- concerning claims of bias.
In the run-up to the 2020 election, it’s worth considering how this cynical -- yet successful -- approach may be deployed across other platforms.
For those looking to play this game on an even bigger stage, there’s always the Super Bowl.
Each year, PETA submits a Super Bowl ad; each year, the network airing the game rejects it, and that’s exactly what PETA wants. The decade-plus strategy of submitting Super Bowl ads without a chance of getting approved has worked out pretty well for the animal rights organization, which even has a page on its website dedicated to ads that were deemed “too hot for the big game.” The group’s 2016 NSFW “Last Longer” ad has more than 59 million views on YouTube after landing write-ups in outlets including HuffPost, Business Insider, and E! News. Why pay millions of dollars for a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl if you can get your message out to tens of millions of people for free?
Even small-scale groups have gotten in on the action of submitting ads destined for rejection. For instance, ahead of 2011’s Super Bowl, a website selling anti-Obama merchandise called JesusHatesObama.com tried to buy a spot during the game. Though it was rejected by the network airing the Super Bowl, it was still written about by CNN and the Chicago Tribune, racking up more than 755,000 views on YouTube in the process. Not bad reach for the low advertising cost of $0.
Nine Line Apparel claimed that its 2019 ad, which took a not-so-veiled jab at Nike and football player Colin Kaepernick, was rejected by CBS. The Washington Examiner, Fox News, TheBlaze, The Daily Wire, Breitbart, and RedState were among the right-wing outlets that raged about Nine Line’s exclusion, even though USA Today reported that CBS had disputed the brand’s claim that its ad was rejected. Whatever the truth was, Nine Line’s commercial got more than 717,000 views on YouTube thanks to a heap of conservative media attention.
This playbook is free for groups of any political persuasion to use, but conservatives have the benefit of their partisan media outlets relentlessly amplifying the result.
In 2017, writer Ryan Holiday wrote an article in the New York Observer highlighting the similarities between a tactic he once used to promote a client’s 2009 film and that of vintage Onion article come to life Milo Yiannopoulos. In “I Helped Create the Milo Trolling Playbook. You Should Stop Playing Right Into It,” Holiday explained the strategy he used to get lots of attention with little funding, arguing that “one of the best ways to get young men to go see a movie was to tell them they should not be allowed to see it”:
We encouraged protests at colleges by sending outraged emails to various activist groups and clubs on campuses where the movie was being screened. We sent fake tips to Gawker, which dutifully ate them up. We created a boycott group on Facebook that acquired thousands of members. We made deliberately offensive ads and ran them on websites where they would be written about by controversy-loving reporters. After I began vandalizing some of our own billboards in Los Angeles, the trend spread across the country, with parties of feminists roving the streets of New York to deface them (with the Village Voice in tow).
But my favorite was the campaign in Chicago—the only major city where we could afford transit advertising. After placing a series of offensive ads on buses and the metro, from my office I alternated between calling in angry complaints to the Chicago CTA and sending angry emails to city officials with reporters cc’d, until ‘under pressure,’ they announced that they would be banning our advertisements and returning our money. Then we put out a press release denouncing this cowardly decision.
(Holiday discusses this in more detail in his book, Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator.)
Conservatives have an advantage in that there’s a network of blogs, newspapers, and TV channels more than willing to devote time to even the smallest stories of personal slights. While Fox & Friends, for instance, regularly provides a platform to conservatives to air their minor grievances, there’s no comparable left-wing equivalent. Right-wing outlets excel at amplifying victimhood narratives centered on outrage, real or imagined. For instance, when HuffPost published a video last year joking about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Fox News hosts ran wild with the false narrative that liberals wanted to ban the classic movie.
Gaming the “Streisand Effect” is just one of many dirty tricks at the disposal of political operatives. Dorsey’s move may shut it down.
With Twitter’s announcement, Dorsey has seemingly calculated that the only winning move is not to play. He may be right, at least about whether it’s right for Twitter as a company. It almost certainly won’t halt all claims of anti-conservative bias, but it at least prevents people from basing those bad-faith claims on opaque ad rules.
And with a consequential election just around the corner, political media and the general public would greatly benefit from an understanding of how groups will try to leverage outrage and victimhood into free and sympathetic publicity. Whether it’s a group of pundits wringing their hands over “cancel culture” or someone placing an ad with the intention of getting it pulled down to ride the “Streisand Effect” to success, it’s on all of us to be aware that these tactics exist to create very specific narratives. The press has a responsibility to push back on efforts to manipulate the news cycle at the expense of the truth. To do that, journalists must be able to identify bad actors and the tactics they employ.