There are all sorts of reasons to take pictures of the California coast. For one thing, it’s intensely beautiful and what are you, crazy? Or, decidedly less fun, perhaps you’re participating in a governmental data collection effort documenting coastal erosion. This was the case in 2003, when a professional aerial photographer went Rambo with his camera and took 12,000 photos of the Golden State coastline. The collection, uploaded to a public database, included—amid shots of majestic white bluffs and probably more than a few nudists—at least one cliff-side mansion of note: the home of Barbra Streisand. When she learned a photo of her estate was online, the EGOT-winning chanteuse got litigious, dropping the hammer with a $50 million lawsuit citing privacy concerns. But a bad break for Babs: the news of the suit (which was dismissed) made headlines, and blogs sent half a million people to this obscure research project. Not only had Streisand utterly failed in her quest to squash the photo’s online publication, she had inadvertently made it infinitely more popular and available than it would have been otherwise. A writer took note of the phenomenon, and the Streisand Effect was born.
Cut to Willard “Mitt” Romney. Two weeks ago, ABC and the Washington Post released a poll, one of dozens that see the light of day each week. This one was a little newsy, but not really: it showed President Obama holding a 51% to 45% lead over Romney, which while interesting wasn’t some huge outlier. Yet the Romney campaign pushed back with a vengeance, complaining like an apoplectic basketball coach after a dicey call that the poll’s methodology was faulty. Reporters dutifully wrote their articles in response, though most bloggers and pundits seemed surprised by the pushback strategy. Why not just shrug it off? It’s only one poll; wait a couple minutes, there’ll be another one. Plus—and you know where I’m going with this—it seems like a pretty solid case of the Streisand Effect. “Romney Campaign Disagrees With Poll That Has Him Losing Like a Loser”—great work, guys. But this kind of thing happens all the time. There’s the story of toolish wingnut Gov. Sam Brownback who bullied a high-schooler after she tweeted that he “sucked,” ensuring that everyone would hear about how right she was. Another example is the slick and scummy owner of our local Redskins, Dan Snyder, who sued the beloved but little-read Washington City Paper over an article that pointed out all the ways in which he was horrible. (They are, I assure you, legion.) Since then, it’s been read and re-read, linked to and forwarded sometimes just out of pure spite. Yes, seventeen years after Alanis: actual, real-life irony.
The Streisand Effect is nothing new—think of any banned book list you’ve ever seen—but there’s something intrinsic about this jaundiced campaign that brings it to the fore. Romney giving a bad poll more attention was just a blip, immediately forgotten after he got trounced in last week’s contests in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado. But in this era of instant, tweet-addled, spastic news cycles, nothing quite beats the schadenfreude-y LOLs we’re treated to when someone tries to hide or obfuscate something before getting smacked in the face with their own boomerang, slapstick-style. The Republicans running for the presidency can carry themselves with such vitriol that when one of them gets Streisand Effected, they appear deflated to us, shrunken in their pomposity. The most popular offender of this law of internet physics is almost certainly Rick Santorum, who if he wasn’t such a mean-spirited shit—and if the punishment didn’t so perfectly fit the crime—one could even consider feeling sorry for his “Google problem.” For anybody who’s somehow missed out on the giggling: after some particularly callous, anti-gay bashing, beatific sex columnist Dan Savage vulgarly and hilariously repurposed the former senator’s surname, the explanatory link to which is now Google’s top search for the guy. Santorum, inevitably, asked Google to remove the link. They refused, and the ensuing coverage only made Savage’s link more popular. (I assume Santorum, hoping to remedy the situation, spends his free time furiously clicking on the link to his own Wikipedia page, a little trail of smoke coming out of his mouse.)
It would be one thing if the Republicans didn’t just have a hopelessly atavistic attitude to the Internet. The online world has a chaotic, itchy curiosity toward most things, and we respond badly to being denied. But there’s something fundamental about Romney’s annoyance and Santorum’s disgust. Their goal in these instances—if you’ll forgive the Jungian excursus—is to hide their truest selves from us. That Romney is an unlikable, thin-skinned dud and Santorum is a noxious, hateful jerk are generally the kinds of facts candidates want to bury in order to win votes. What makes it so difficult for them is that, like Glinda the Good Witch, they travel the country in cozy bubbles. Note the tiny number of press conferences, the low-key hostility to even mildly probing reporters, the inviting hermetic seal of Fox News and its backrub-ish form of questioning. To them, this is normalcy; bad things (like lousy polls, or backlash from Team Gay Rights) can be ignored. They don’t notice what we’re all perfectly capable of observing. It’s as if they’re engaging in a kind of politico saccadic masking where their brains have literally created gaps in their visual perception that only others can discern. Trying to create blind spots and failing—there’s poor Barbra again—signifies something beyond delightfully ironic results; it suggests a detached alt-reality. The fantasy of vanishing bad poll numbers or Google results is amusingly absurd to us, watching these poor schmucks flail about in their preferred parallel-universes.
What’s more, it’s kind of insulting, right? Like we’re getting played by these goofs and their over-determined cluelessness, Romney and Snyder and the rest treating us like infants who haven’t yet developed object permanence. But it’s just one drop in the getting-insulted-by-our-politics bucket, really. Sure, we’re getting trolled something fierce every time Romney swings like a compass needle in the direction of whatever. But fatuous politicians’ efforts to squeeze out reality in order to stay electable offer up a pretty solid indication of the thwarted narrowness of our political culture. What adds that strangely gripping element to Streisand Effect-type suppression is how these petty complaints are powered by the same sour smallness, indifferent arrogance and broader lack of integrity that birthed America’s current frail-and-fleeced national civics. In subtle and obvious ways, the country—and the work many of us do on behalf of it—is belittled by the rote disingenuousness of the season. Which only makes watching these mean, feeble-hearted jackasses struggle an even edgier emotional experience than politics usually offers. The particular thrill in seeing this primary-season’s fumblings is the wince-y though not unfun sense that comes from watching huge evils stumbling hugely.
In the days after the Missouri/Minnesota/Colorado results, googling Santorum offered up something a little different. At the top of the screen was a promoted campaign ad, and directly below it were brand-new Google News-created results of his surprise victories in those three contests. Dan Savage’s link was pushed almost into scroll-down territory. There’s your alternative to the Streisand Effect. It turns out winning is a bit more effective.