Toons & the Streisand Effect
Arkadev Ghoshal on why and how banning anything tends to increase its popularity
THE WORLD seems to be growing increasingly intolerant, especially when it comes to making fun of an individual or an entity. Instead of being a sport, leaders, especially those in India, are playing spoilsport by trying to censor the internet or any other audio-visual media that, they claim, ‘shows them in poor light’! The day does not seem far when cartoonists, caricaturists and sundry guffaw-inducing images and texts will have to respond with blank cartoon slots, much like the way The Indian Express protested with a blank editorial against Indira Gandhi’s emergency-era crackdowns of journalists and newspapers.
However, other forms of protests are already seeing the light of the day, and the underlying principle of them all seems to be something called the Streisand effect, named after American entertainer Barbra Streisand. Like many others, she entirely misunderstood and underestimated the power of the internet when approaching a US court in 2003 with an appeal to make a website take down the photo of the seafront villa she had just purchased. For privacy and security concerns, you know?
What ensued was exactly the opposite of what Streisand was looking to achieve. As news of the lawsuit spread, the image, which had been accessed just six times prior to this, was viewed or downloaded nearly 420,000 over the next month alone! That Streisand had asked the photographer to pay a compensation of $50 million in the lawsuit may have contributed hugely to the litigation grabbing bigger-than-usual headlines.
The effect has been visible in India too, and especially when politicians are concerned. Take for example the case where a member of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) lodged a police complaint against cartoonist Satish Acharya for a caricature the latter had made of the political outfit’s chief Sharad Pawar. Following the complaint, an officer from Mumbai police’s cyber crime cell asked Acharya to take the cartoon down, Acharya did something radical: He shared the image on Facebook and twitter, for thousand of fans and followers to see, and urged them to share it so that more people saw them!
To say that the move proved counterproductive was an understatement. In fact, it also apparently garnered a lot of support from the upper echelons of journalism and media. Acharya says in a blog post that media mogul Pritish Nandy told him, “You must ensure that all newspapers all over India report on this and carry the cartoon. We are not living under the Emergency.” Pawar’s agenda was undone, all because Acharya chose to upload a photo! Almost a clinical example of the Streisand Effect.
However, things probably got a little out of hand when, last December, Union telecom and information technology minister Kapil Sibal asked social networking sites (SNSes) to take down what he described as ‘objectionable content’ from their pages. Within a matter of days, any and all cartoons, caricatures and spoofs featuring the Congress ‘high command’ proliferated. Sibal himself was the butt of many a joke and dare, with netizens bravely inviting him and his police to arrest them for each and every joke they cracked openly on him.
As if that was not all, spoofs sprang up of Kapil Sibal trying to pre-screen the most famous political surname in India because its first four alphabets spell out a Hindi word used to refer to our rear in a derogatory sense. Talk of being the ‘butt’ of the joke! Another spoof saw him try to pre-screen the acronym, of the regional outfit Democratic Indira Congress (Karunakaran) for obvious reasons! That Sibal became involved in the deluge of reaction, despite the fact that he was not involved in any of the original cartoons, seems have taken the Streisand Effect to the next level. Anyone agreeing to call it the Sibal Effect now?
SO WHAT is it exactly about these cartoons that bugs our lawmakers so much? The first answer is obvious: Nobody wants to be ridiculed or portrayed in a bad light, irrespective of whether they deserve it or not. And because a picture is worth a thousand words, a single such well-illustrated and well-worded cartoon has the capacity to persist in human memory, by virtue of its wit and impact, for an inordinate amount of time. It is this recall value that politicians loath; their biggest fear is that such cartoons might cost them their position of power at election time.
Then again, this fear may be unfounded. After all, barely months after 26/11, when the Maharashtra assembly election took place, less than half of Mumbai came out to vote! The indifference towards such a huge security lapse on part of the authorities was writ large in the gesture. So that’s one burden off their shoulders.
The second reason why we are seeing so many objections may be the growing level of intolerance towards anything and everything, and by extension, being made fun of. Now some may agree that we are actually growing more tolerant, what with our acceptance of lgbt communities and secular outlook? Let’s look at another example, then. Nearly three decades ago, when Amitabh Bachchan played the lowly coolie in a film by that name, the climax involved a shootout on the premises of Mumbai’s famous Haji Ali dargah. There seems to be no record of anybody objecting to guns being brought inside the holy precinct for the shoot. No religious feathers were ruffled. Cut to the year that kick-started the present millennium, and the superstar was accused of hurting religious sentiments because he ‘allegedly’ donned footwear while reciting the Gayatri Mantra on screen in a film that was ‘all about love’. The actor had to officially state that he was not wearing any footwear, and hence not disrespected the holy chant. Clearly, something had happened in the interregnum to wear the people’s tolerance thin!
I came across a possible third reason while returning to Delhi from Kolkata on a train. Fate had happened to seat me next to a gentleman who belonged to one of the coalition partners in the United Progressive Alliance. When I asked why the party supremo does not take too kindly to toons and caricatures featuring her, he said, “Which person, who works his or her heart out for the people, wouldn’t? You work for the betterment of people and then get ridiculed despite everything. Who can stand that for long?” He has a point.
Arkadev Ghoshal is chief sub-editor with The Financial World. The opinions expressed are his own