Legal threats and the Streisand effect

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A few days ago, a lawyer hired by the website funnyjunk.com threatened Matthew Inman, the owner of theoatmeal.com. He demanded Matthew take down a blog post and pay $20,000 in damages for (alleged) defamation.

Matthew swiftly taught Funnyjunk a lesson in how fast bad publicity can spread online, and in particular what’s known as the “Streisand Effect”.

Background

The Oatmeal is a website where Matthew Inman displays his cartoons and info-graphics.  A little while ago he made fun of the website Funnyjunk in a comic. The comic (among other things) accused funnyjunk of displaying his artwork without proper attribution.

Legal threat

About a year later (a few days prior to this blog post), Matthew received a letter from a lawyer hired by Funnyjunk. The letter demaned payment of $20,000.00. Matthew decided not to respond formally through a lawyer, but instead posted an online response to the threat. His response pointed out some problems with the legal threat, and also said that instead of paying Funnyjunk $20,000, he would try to raise that much money but donate it to the American Cancer Society and the National Wildlife Federation.

He tweeted news of the threat and his response by posting on twitter, and it spread like wildfire.

Effect

Matthew raised $8,000 after 23 minutes, $32,000 after hour and a half, and $54,000 in five hours (the time of this blog post). It’s still going up. That’s an astonishingly quick fundraising effort by any measure.

Less suprising is how many people now think Funnyjunk is in the wrong, and are sharing the story with everybody they know. At the time of writing, the second and third results for a google search for “funnyjunk” are related to this story. There are already 62 stories listed on Google News about it. The top discussion on reddit.com is about it and has more than 2,000 comments. By my unofficial count, about 20 people are posting tweets about it every second.

It’s a classic example of the Streisand Effect, where an attempt to conceal something on the internet has exactly the opposite effect. In this case – Funnyjunk tried to use a legal threat to take down some bad publicity from a year ago. Now millions more people all over the world are being told what happened. Tens of thousands are donating money to display their dislike of Funnyjunk.

In this case the bad publicity could be well-deserved, although of course we don’t really know both sides of the story. But even if Funnyjunk had a point, what has happened to them pointedly shows the risk of using a legal threat to reduce bad publicity – especially against a wildly popular site like The Oatmeal. Perhaps it should have taken a different approach.

(Note: www.theoatmeal.com is struggling to cope with all the people trying to access it at the moment – you may get an error when you try to visit some of the links above)

*A little under 24 hours later, the money raised was up to $120,000.