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Dublin: 18 °C Tuesday 30 September, 2014

Column: Social media and the Streisand Effect – who dictates popular discourse today?

Guess what? Traditional media no longer gets to dictate we can (or should) care about – as Panti Bliss, Pussy Riot and a host of other activists and individuals have proved, writes Lisa McInerney.

Lisa McInerney

YOU KNOW WHAT the Streisand Effect is, right? It’s the phenomenon in which the effort to suppress information has the unintended result of publicising it further. It’s named after the cranky chanteuse whose attempt to remove an aerial photograph featuring her mansion from a collection of 12,000 images documenting Californian coastal erosion backfired spectacularly, increasing the number of keyboard voyeurs venturing a sconse at her gaff from four to nearly half a million. A star, you could say, was born.

OK, so Babs’ star does indeed precede the internet, but when a story sprouts sudden wings these days, it’s often due to mischievous public reaction to being told what we’re allowed to care about, fuelled then by information technology. It’s left many mainstream media outlets wrong-footed; where it was once the place of the media to set the agenda, often now it’s merely reacting to it. It must be a startling transformation for the old guard; one can imagine the genteel distance between a newspaper and its common readership in Ye Good Olde Days, whereas now, the horde decides for itself what it’s interested in, creating its own swells and troughs in an ocean of human interest stories and cat videos.

Pursuing the forbidden

One thing the global village is clearly enamoured with is pursuing the forbidden. Metallica realised, to their chagrin, that taking a hardass line on illegal downloading doomed them to suffer remarkable levels of pirating. Ryan Giggs came to regret threatening to sue Twitter over users naming him as the footballer at the centre of the superinjunction skit. Beyoncé asked Buzzfeed to remove unflattering photographs of her Super Bowl show and subsequently became the most hilariously photoshopped pop star on the planet. In short, attempting to dictate what people should care about can often fall flat, but attempting to dictate what people shouldn’t care about will, more often than not, ignite dramatically.

Our national broadcaster may not be staffed entirely with people who don’t know what the Streisand Effect is, but it’s evident that its key decision makers were hitherto lost in the dark. The snap decision to remove part of Rory O’Neill’s interview from the Saturday Night Show’s online archive, and to compensate the individuals he referred to, has resulted in a backlash louder than any petulant complaint put forward by our most strident defenders of medieval social systems. Perhaps RTÉ, and the egos its nimble reimbursement attempted to salve, thought that we’d flail about a bit on Twitter and forget the whole kit n’ caboodle a couple of days later.

Search and share

Whatever hope might have remained for that conclusion was obliterated by Panti’s eloquent Noble Call at the Abbey Theatre last weekend. This is what our national broadcaster and those momentarily placated dinosaurs missed: in 2014, nothing will give wings to an injustice like a brilliantly-crafted speech.

Panti’s Noble Call put in ten minutes a clear translation of a lifetime of oppression, anxiety and hurt. It made an alien experience instantly understandable, and put a collective experience into words that were reasonable, quotable, and eminently shareable. And not only do we live in an age where the majority of ordinary, peaceful individuals want nothing but a mutually ordinary and peaceful existence, we live in the age of the sound bite.

We’re on constant lookout for definitions that help us make sense of our lives and, by gum, we’re keen to share ‘em. And so an honest speech became a worldwide conversation, helped along by such influential people as Stephen Fry and RuPaul and Graham Norton and Madonna, relayed to a massive audience by net-only news sites like Gawker and The Huffington Post, and consequently marched into the political spotlight by David Norris, Averil Power and Paul Murphy.

It would be a gargantuan task to suppress something affecting half as many people put only a fraction as powerfully, and not since The Passion Of St Tibulus has an Irish authority been made look so woefully naive.

A new media landscape

Mainstream news organisations bring us stories of global import, or report on conventional sports, or tell us who looked like what in which bikini. The internet is a landscape just as financially fecund, but its peaks are dictated to a much greater degree by the attention spans of its denizens. Internet-only media organisations have cottoned on to this and, for better or worse, we’re now being besieged by carefully-crafted headlines and teaser tags that promise us intense moments of hilarity or empathy or outrage; no one on Facebook or Twitter could have missed the Upworthy-isation of their feeds, and list-based sites like Cracked and Buzzfeed reach (and keep!) more readers than any print magazine or newspaper could hope to pitch to. This is the landscape in which Panti’s Noble Call blossomed.

This is also why Brendan O’Connor’s weekend interview with Russian political activists Pussy Riot awarded us an ugly splatter of international derision. The Saturday Night Show turned out not to be the right forum for interviewing former political prisoners from feminist protest collectives; there remains the sneaking suspicion that O’Connor had mistakenly prepared for an interview with the Pussycat Dolls. Referring to his guests repeatedly as “girls”, joking that an exchange between Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and her translator and husband was a “domestic”, then asking them if they were into Madonna, added up to a seriously cringeworthy whole. It wasn’t life-affirming, but it was embarrassingly terrible, and when the internet can’t get life-affirming it’ll settle quickly for schadenfreude.

We view and share and discuss and reshape

Whether that’s a good thing or not, it’s most certainly a real thing, and the culture of sharing tearjerking treasures and short sharp shocks isn’t going to abate any time soon. The Rory O’Neill and Pussy Riot debacles may well teach RTÉ an overdue message: interpretation of a news story no longer stops at the reporting media outlet. We view and share and discuss and reshape for as long as the story runs its course, and by the end of it we’re often left with something bigger, or stronger, or deeper. Sometimes that’s a rake of ridiculous Beyoncé pictures. Sometimes it’s a rallying cry that echoes for years.

Rory O’Neill’s words on dealing with homophobia have reached hundreds of thousands more people than he would ever have hoped, due in no small part to RTÉ’s disproportionate attempt to pretend he’d never said them. Turns out RTÉ no longer gets to dictate the terms of popular discourse. Bit of Latin there for the national broadcaster and the dinosaurs: vox populi, vox Dei.

Read more of Lisa McInerney’s columns here >

Main image: Conor Horgan/Panti Bliss/Panti Bar via Facebook

Read: Ireland pulled a collective cringe muscle watching Pussy Riot on the Saturday Night Show

Read: Watch Panti’s powerful speech about oppression of gay people

Column: Panti Bliss controversy raises major questions about RTE’s role in public discourse

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