Critical Thinking

Posted April 28, 2016, under Gee Whillickers!

Most people don’t enjoy being criticized, despite the fact that being called out and corrected is an important factor in personal growth. This tendency to react poorly is bad enough on a personal level, but when it happens on a corporate level, it can turn into national news β€” and not in a good way.

UC Davis Discovers the Streisand Effect

A universal theme in these stories is that the very act of trying to stifle news has the exact opposite result. This is such a common occurrence, it has a name: The Streisand Effect, from that time when Barbara Streisand sued to censor an aerial photo that showed her residence. The fact of the lawsuit was more newsworthy than the photo itself, and reporting on the story meant that the very photo that she sought to suppress was suddenly everywhere.

Even here in the Lunch Meat!

By Copyright (C) 2002 Kenneth & Gabrielle Adelman,
California Coastal Records Project, CC BY-SA 3.0

The administrators of the University of California, Davis have recently discovered that no amount of money can really scrub bad PR from the Internet. Also that spending at least $175,000 in the attempt is such a poor allocation of funds that it becomes its own bad PR.

By way of background: At the height of the Occupy movement in 2011, a UC Davis police officer pepper-sprayed peaceful protesters at close range. The act was caught on multiple cameras, the story went viral, and eventually lead to Lt. Pike’s dismissal from the force. PR nightmare.

The Sacramento Bee recently reported that, since then, the university has poured thousands of dollars into attempts to “improve online search results,” which was widely read as: “scrub or bury the pepper spray incident.” That’s why people are talking about the pepper spray incident again. It’s got its own Wikipedia page. And now there’s the additional taint of that $175,000 payout.

By way of damage control, UC Davis representatives have stated that the notion was β€œto improve our capacity and expertise in digital communications.” Whatever that means.

Please note: “Scrubbing bad reviews/PR” from the Internet is not a thing that is possible or should even be attempted. The Internet doesn’t forget and will notice if you try. If you’re getting bad press or bad reviews, the thing to do is investigate and try to be better.

Not Being Better

Some “canny” folks thought they could get around the Streisand Effect by contractually forbidding online bad reviews.

CNN and, among others, reported on a story about a hotel in upstate New York that went viral in the worst way: over a clause on their website threatening a $500 fine for each bad review by any member of hosted wedding parties. After their Yelp page was barraged by hundreds of mostly fictitious bad reviews, the hotel management removed the stipulation from their website, claiming it was all just a joke.

Then there is Roca Labs, whose ongoing legal battles over poor reviews is becoming the stuff of legend. Roca Labs is in the weight-loss business. Their product is a pink goo that they marketed as a nonsurgical alternative to gastric bypass (albeit one not FDA approved).

The goo bears a strange resemblance to this stuff. (Image Source)

Evidently, they also are trying to keep some lawyers in business, because they’ll sue anyone who says anything bad about their product. Their basis for doing so is a clause in their Terms of Service (since removed by court order, so that’s not going well for them) that prohibits users from complaining. They have even sued for hosting anonymous reviews (and lost).

This quickly got the attention of law-related websites like Techdirt and Popehat, and the story spread far and wide. As Roca Labs filed more suits, coverage ballooned. Then the FTC got involved.

Now, we’re not lawyers or doctors or pink ectoplasm users, so we can’t and won’t comment on any of the cases, the business, or the product.

All we want to point out is that Roca’s efforts to silence unfavorable reviews have lead to significantly greater attention to them. Had they just taken the bad with the good and focused on delivering the best product and service they could, they probably wouldn’t now have the FTC breathing down their necks.

All of which is to say: The Streistand Effect means that policing negative reviews becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

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