Propaganda 104 Supplemental: The Streisand Effect and the Political Question

by Gene Howington, Guest Blogger

As mentioned in the last installment of this series, silence in various forms can be just as potent a propaganda tool as words or images proper. Variations of this tactic were presented as were examples of successful and unsuccessful attempts at its utilization. This last week a news story appeared that illustrates one of the major types of failure associated with this tactic and it is one that is every more likely and hard to avoid in the Information Age.  This type of failure is known colloquially as the Streisand Effect; whereby an attempt to hide or remove a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely, usually facilitated by the Internet.

“Don’t look at this!”

Named for singer Barbra Streisand, it is a modern term for an old phenomena.  Similar to the meme of “Banned in Boston”, it revolves around the idea that forbidden fruit is the most tempting and that banning or censoring something often makes that item or information more desirable. Babs got her name attached to this propaganda phenomena when in 2003 she attempted to suppress photographs of her residence and inadvertently generated further publicity. This publicity was notably “improved” – although if you’re Babs you might say “exacerbated” – by the World Wide Web.

This week’s story involves the GOP attempting to suppress a non-partisan tax study that debunked their entire Ayn Rand/neoconservative taxation mythology that catering to the wealthy creates jobs.  It provides an interesting case study in the Streisand Effect.  It also raises some interesting questions about political culpability and consequences.

Since silence is a tactic of omission and lies of omission are still lies, what should be the consequences for politically falling on your own sword (unintentional or not) in the form of the Streisand Effect?  For other forms of political lies for that matter?  First, let’s consider this week’s event in detail.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) has withdrawn an economic report, originally published on September 14, 2011 that found no correlation between top tax rates and economic growth – a central tenet of conservative economic theory – after Senate Republicans complained about the paper’s findings and wording.  For those of you unfamiliar with the Congressional Research Service, they are a non-partisan offshoot of the Library of Congress and they prepare such reports at the request of lawmakers.  Although the reports are posted on the service’s Web site, the research is considered private.  This particular report entitled “Taxes and the Economy: An Economic Analysis of the Top Tax Rates Since 1945” was prepared by Thomas Hungerford, a specialist in public finance who earned his economics doctorate from the University of Michigan.  CRS reports such as this are available only to members and staff as a general rule and their public release is subject to lawmakers’ discretion. However, as noted by the New York Times, “the Hungerford study was bound to be widely circulated. It emerged in the final months of a presidential campaign in which tax policy has been a central focus.”  As expected, the report received wide notice from media outlets and liberal and conservative policy analysts when it was released on September 14.  Unfortunately for the GOP, they had the problem of “Mr. Romney, the Republican nominee, maintain[ing] that any increase in the top tax rates on income and capital gains would slow economic growth and crush the job market’s recovery.”  Again unfortunately for the GOP, the report found a conclusion that completely undermined the central premise of their tax policy as espoused by their candidate.

The results of the analysis suggest that changes over the past 65 years in the top marginal tax rate and the top capital gains tax rate do not appear correlated with economic growth. The reduction in the top tax rates appears to be uncorrelated with saving, investment, and productivity growth. The top tax rates appear to have little or no relation to the size of the economic pie.

However, the top tax rate reductions appear to be associated with the increasing concentration of income at the top of the income distribution. As measured by IRS data, the share of income accruing to the top 0.1% of U.S. families increased from 4.2% in 1945 to 12.3% by 2007 before falling to 9.2% due to the 2007-2009 recession. At the same time, the average tax rate paid by the top 0.1% fell from over 50% in 1945 to about 25% in 2009. Tax policy could have a relation to how the economic pie is sliced—lower top tax rates may be associated with greater income disparities.” – Taxes and the Economy: An Economic Analysis of the Top Tax Rates Since 1945, p. 16.

The decision to withdraw the report was made against the advice of the agency’s economic team leadership on September 28. In other words, Mr. Hungerford and the economic research team stood by the work and the CRS management quashed the report because of pressure from the GOP which “questioned the methodology” and “other flaws”.  What problems with methodology?  Well the GOP was kind of vague on that issue.  They say Hungerford was “looking for a macroeconomic response to tax cuts within the first year of the policy change without sufficiently taking into account the time lag of economic policies. Further, they complained that his analysis had not taken into account other policies affecting growth, such as the Federal Reserve’s decisions on interest rates.”  Just because the GOP says that does not make it so and the burden of proof rests with them just as the burden of defense rests with Hungerford.  Being that the GOP used political pressure on the bosses at CRS to repress the report though, that kind of makes having a public airing of the alleged methodology problems moot.  Or so the GOP wanted to think at the time – things may not be working out that way.  As to the alleged other flaws?  “Aides to Mr. McConnell presented a bill of particulars to the research service that included objections to the use of the term ‘Bush tax cuts’ and the report’s reference to ‘tax cuts for the rich,’ which Republicans contended was politically freighted” reported the New York Times. In other words, the GOP objected to calling tax cuts to the wealthy instituted by the Bush administration exactly what they are because they felt the words were value loaded. Uh huh. One need not even have read the previous installments in this series to know that tactic reeks of the Rove Maneuver: smear your target with your own sin. Accuracy in a term is not loaded language – the tax cuts for the rich originated with Bush – but trying to make it seem as if accurate terms are loaded language is simply a false equivalence, i.e. simply another lie.

However, almost no notice of the CRS withdrawal of the paper was taken at the time. Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, cited that very study in a speech on tax policy at the National Press Club. A week and a half after it was officially withdrawn.  The paper was by the time the GOP attempted to suppress it the proverbial horse that was out of the barn.  Of course, none of this post-horse escaping barn door closing action really took place if you ask the GOP.

Republicans did not say whether they had asked the research service, a nonpartisan arm of the Library of Congress, to take the report out of circulation, but they were clear that they protested its tone and findings.

Don Stewart, a spokesman for the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said Mr. McConnell and other senators “raised concerns about the methodology and other flaws.” Mr. Stewart added that people outside of Congress had also criticized the study and that officials at the research service “decided, on their own, to pull the study pending further review.” – New York Times

Sure they did.  That’s why the reports author stands by his work and the report was withdrawn over the objections of the CRS’ economic team leadership.  Here is where the Streisand Effect takes hold.  What was a story from some months ago of fading significance to the Presidential campaign in these final hours is now a story about politicians actively trying to suppress information that shows their policies are castles made of sand. They are trying to silence facts that show their policies are wrong-headed and flawed. They are trying to hide that they are lying to you by creating a lie of omission. It’s a funny thing about lies of omission though. They work better if you use the tactic before or at the onset of the “problem” you wish to silence.  This post hoc ham-fisted effort by the GOP Senators is blowing up in their face because they tried to cover the report up where if they’d just let it be? Sure, it would have come back to bite them, but at least they wouldn’t look like draconian dictators trying to keep information from the public for purely political reasons.

There has been some blowback on the Hill.  Senator Schumer said, “This has hues of a banana republic. They didn’t like a report, and instead of rebutting it, they had them take it down.”  Representative Sander Levin of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, said, “When their math doesn’t add up, Republicans claim that their vague version of economic growth will somehow magically make up the difference. And when that is refuted, they’re left with nothing more to lean on than charges of bias against nonpartisan experts.” “Jared Bernstein, a former economist for Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., conceded that ‘tax cuts for the rich’ was ‘not exactly academic prose,’ but he said the analysis did examine policy time lags and controlled for several outside factors, including monetary policy.” Bernstein added “This sounds to me like a complete political hit job and another example of people who don’t like the results and try to use backdoor ways to suppress them. I’ve never seen anything like this, and frankly, it makes me worried.”  This blowback is due in no small part to this particular episode being part of a larger pattern of behavior on the behalf of the GOP to discredit other reseachand statistics that were once trusted as nonpartisan and apolitical such as figures produced by ehe Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Congressional Budget Office and the privately run Tax Policy Center.

At this point in time, Janine D’Addario, a spokeswoman for the Congressional Research Service, would not comment on internal deliberations over the decision and confirmed that the report was no longer in official circulation. But there is the rub in the Information Age, isn’t it? Once information is released it takes on a life of its own when dealing with distributed networks. Copies get made and passed along. History becomes less malleable by those in power when information is free.  When the horse has left the barn, closing the door is not only a futile act, but it can be destructive.  Ask not for whom the Babs sings, she sings for thee, GOP.  You lot should have left well enough alone, but nooooooooooooo!  Got to exercise your “power”.  Simpletons.

And the sad, sad part of this sad, sad tale is if I went through and changed the subject matter of the report and the names and teams of the players, every single one of you wouldn’t have a hard time believing that such shenanigans were being played upon the People and with the facts of the matter. This story isn’t just a story of partisan ills and malfeasance, but a story of another systemic ill based in both propaganda and the corruption that is modern campaign finance where Senators seek to lie to you blatantly to appease their wealthy donors over looking out for your best interests as citizens.

When manifest attempts like this to lie to the public are discovered, the political question becomes what should be done about it and who should be punished for abusing the public trust in the name of political expediency (and greed as in this particular case)? Do we as a society have a duty to democracy to make enable the Streisand Effect on stories such as this? Is the best disinfectant for imposed silence a robust review and education of the facts?  To paraphrase Edmund Burke, all that is necessary for evil men to be allowed to rewrite history and the facts is for their obfuscation and lies to be met with the inactivity of good good men. When we see someone in office trying to hide the truth, should we all be lil’ Babs?

What do you think?


Source(s): New York Times, Huffington Post, Taxes and the Economy: An Economic Analysis of the Top Tax Rates Since 1945 (.pdf),

~submitted by Gene Howington, Guest Blogger

The Propaganda Series;

Propaganda 105: How to Spot a Liar

Propaganda 104 Supplemental: The Sound of Silence

Propaganda 104: Magica Verba Est Scientia Et Ars Es

Propaganda 103: The Word Changes, The Word Remains The Same

Propaganda 102 Supplemental: Holly Would “Zero Dark Thirty”

Propaganda 102: Holly Would and the Power of Images

Propaganda 101 Supplemental: Child’s Play

Propaganda 101 Supplemental: Build It And They Will Come (Around)

Propaganda 101: What You Need to Know and Why or . . .

Related articles of interest;

Mythology and the New Feudalism by Mike Spindell

How about Some Government Propaganda for the People Paid for by the People Being Propagandized? by Elaine Magliaro


44 thoughts on “Propaganda 104 Supplemental: The Streisand Effect and the Political Question”

  1. Thank you Slarti for mentioning Vince’s CRS affiliation; thank you Gene for contacting him and thank you Vince Treacy for taking the time to bring us up to speed. We miss you.

    Gene … I wonder if he’s looking into the use of Military Commissions during the Civil War and Milligan.

  2. Update from Nate Silver at 538, posted at 7:57 PM EST Nov. 5:
    Electoral vote prediction: Obama 314.4, Romney 223.6
    Chance of winning: Obama 91.4%, Romney 8.6%

    Update from Sam Wang at the Princeton Election Consortium
    As of November 5, 8:00PM EST:
    Obama: 309
    Romney: 229
    Meta-margin: Obama +2.34%
    Probability of Obama re-election:
    Random Drift 98.2%,
    Bayesian Prediction 99.8%

  3. great article Gene but I’m most happy with your article this week for luring Vince back-by-proxy. I enjoyed reading his comments and miss his contributions.

    The problem with the Streisand Effect is that it takes an initial disclosure that some bit of information is being suppressed. This administration is hostile to whistle-blowers and the danger of making that initial disclosure is great. There’s something very wrong with that.

  4. Slarti,

    Vince told me he was on a blogging hiatus because of a research project he and a friend are working on. He’s apparently knee deep in Civil War era law right now. I personally look forward to the fruits of that project. He didn’t go into details, but I am certain knowing Vince that it will be most interesting. Perhaps someday he will “return to the fold” so to speak. 😀

  5. Bron, absolutely. He has a full 1.6% chance once adjusted with the outliers removed. If we us a Bayesian model of prediction Romney’s odds go to 0.1%

    Those are purely statistical probability models that are not based on “degrees of belief.” Math trumps faith.

  6. Bron,

    Your methodology is, shall we say, less than ideal—unlike the methodologies employed by the two sites OS mentioned (538 and the PEC) which are undeniably sound. Nate and Sam may be wrong, but until that happens the empirical evidence suggests that they should be pretty darn close.

  7. “The Rasmussen Reports daily Presidential Tracking Poll for Monday shows Mitt Romney attracting support from 49% of voters nationwide, while President Obama earns the vote from 48%. Two percent (2%) prefer some other candidate, and one percent (1%) remains undecided.”

    Rasmussen called the Obama/McCain match up in 2008 within 1 point.

    That is todays tracking poll. Now that doesnt mean he will win the electoral votes. I still think he gets over 272.

  8. Bron,
    According to some of the best statistical and polling experts in the country, Romney will do well to break 225, much less 300.

    I do concede to the wisdom of Yogi Berra, “It ain’t over ’till the fat lady sings;” however, I do think she is waiting in the wings for her cue to come on stage.

    De Nile is not just a river in Egypt.

  9. Bron,

    If you look at the polling median (which de-emphasizes outliers—like Rasmussen tends to be) of state-level polls (which have larger relative sample sizes and more homogeneous populations surveyed)—methodology which has proven accurate in the past, you get a probability for President Obama’s reelection of something like 98.4% to 99.9%. Unless the polls are egregiously wrong and have a significant structural bias towards President Obama (which is unlikely, but possible—Nate Silver gives that about a 13.7% chance), then your predictions are unlikely to prove accurate.

    Damn. OS beat me to it…


    Nice job getting Vince to post here again, even if only by proxy… 😉

  10. Bron, please don’t tell us from what part of your anatomy you pulled that 285 electoral votes. That would be way more information than we need.

    Nate Silver at 538:
    Now-cast at 1:47 AM EDT today: Obama 308.4 and Romney 229.6 electoral votes. Obama 88.0% chance of winning, Romney 12.0%. Obama 50.6% of the popular vote and Romney 48.5%. The popular vote does not mean squat, it is the electoral vote that counts.

    Sam Wang at the Princeton Election Consortium says:
    As of November 5, 4:59PM EST:
    Obama: 310
    Romney: 228
    Meta-margin: Obama +2.46%
    Probability of Obama re-election: Random Drift 98.4%,
    Bayesian Prediction 99.9%

    Intrade says:
    “Barack Obama to be re-elected President in 2012”
    Obama 68.0% chance of winning.

  11. ATTN: Blouise and all others interested in the CRS question.

    I received an email today from long time blog friend and former regular contributor, the well-respected and much loved Vince Treacy. Vince offered his personal take on this situation as well as answering questions about the CRS reporting process. Without further ado, I’ll let his own words speak for him:

    “I was a Legislative Attorney at CRS from 1973 to 1998, a little over 25 years. The task producing non-partisan, unbiased reports was a continuing problem. On occasions, my legal conclusions encountered Republican opposition, but not exclusively, see, e.g.

    On the question of the request process, the identity of congressional requestors is considered privileged, and CRS does not release it without consent. Some products are issued in memorandum form. One example of this occurs when a staffer asks if specific language in a confidential legislative proposal would be constitutional. If the topic is more general and public, or if numerous requestors have asked similar questions, then the response takes the form of a general distribution memo or a formal CRS Report. The CRS response to the Obama birth issue began with a memorandum in 2009 and a formal Report in 2011. These are both online.

    Anyone can ask their Representative or Senator a question. Many of these are referred to CRS, and the staff will send any response back to the constituent. If enough similar requests come in, CRS will prepare a general response. A constituent could ask a Member to get a CRS opinion on a legal or policy issue on a pending legal issue, and some Members might agree to do so.

    As part of the work process, analysts have to adopt an objective, rather than an advocacy, approach. The job is to write something like a judicial decision or arbitration award rather than a legal brief or law review article. The reports usually have to canvass all sides of an issue and describe the pros and cons of the question. This results in a product that does not necessarily state one’s own views. Legal reports will contain a fair description of applicable laws, judicial decisions and scholarly opinion before drawing a conclusion. Sometimes the conclusion could be clear, for example, that the ex post facto clause applies only to criminal statutes because of an early Supreme Court decision.

    In other areas, all conclusions have to be clothed with qualifications and nuances. A report might typically say that it would appear, from applicable legislative history and judicial decisions that the proposed legislation would be held by the courts to be constitutional, although the courts may reverse or revise past holdings. The many CRS Reports on the Affordable Care Act were couched in these terms. Reports in the areas of economics, national defense, foreign affairs and social policy also must be strictly objective.

    The work product at CRS goes through numerous levels of review. Each memo or report is initially reviewed and approved by a Section Research Manager who oversees about five to ten analysts. It is then approved by one the Assistant Directors of CRS in charge of the employee’s Division. Finally, it is subjected to policy review in the Office of the Director of CRS for adherence to standards of impartiality and nonpartisanship. At any point, there can be interdisciplinary review; for example, an economic or political science report may be reviewed for legal accuracy.

    Obviously — obviously — not everyone will be satisfied. There have been numerous congressional explosions down through the years. Once in a while the congressperson will demand the researcher’s scalp. In the early Bush administration, CRS did a report questioning warrantless surveillance.

    The Republicans responded with bitter attacks on the Service, supported by their own legal memos, but the report was not pulled. When Hollings objected to my memo, he put a rebuttal legal memo in the Congressional Record. The birthers have been baying for blood ever since the CRS Report on Obama’s birth and citizenship came out.

    I think most Members and staffers prefer to have CRS (like the GAO) stick by its guns. Even if they disagree with one report, there will be sometime in the future when CRS may come down on their side of an issue. They will not be able to wave that report on the Floor if they have denounced CRS as a partisan hack shop, or if it has a reputation for caving in to pressure.

    To my knowledge, there are few, if any, examples of CRS ever formally withdrawing a report or memo on policy grounds. I think it was a grave mistake. Over the years, the policy has been to stand by the researcher and the Service’s conclusions. The storm eventually blows over. Where there is controversy, the record fills up with rebuttals. If a requestor has substantive factual or legal problems with a report, CRS can issue a new or revised report reflecting the corrections, if not merely a matter of opinion.

    The Report on tax cuts was, from all reports so far (except in the alternate universe of the Wall Street Journal editorial page), completely professional and in keeping with by scholarly standards. Incidentally, Tim Noah at the New Republic said the could not find the “tax cuts for the rich” meme:

    “The CRS report also stands accused of making reference to ‘tax cuts for the rich.’ This is unacceptably hurtful, I suppose, to a group that a more sensitive person would know to call the ‘special-incomed.’ As it happens, though, my PDF search of the CRS report reveals that nowhere does the phrase ‘tax cuts for the rich’ appear.”

    In the past 10 years, virtually all formal CRS Reports have been available on the internet at sites like Secrecy News and, so the concept of “withdrawing” a report is fanciful in the extreme. They can all be found by simple google(tm) searches. This is as it should be, since all these materials are paid for by the taxpayers. Unless there is confidential or privileged information in them, we are entitled to them because we paid for them. So too are we entitled to read the tax cut report despite its “withdrawal”.

    The reports are out there. If there is some inaccuracy in the data or the conclusions, then anyone is free to point them out and argue as persuasively as they can against them. This is a part of the marketplace of ideas that is the basis for free expression.

    Withdrawing the report is as futile as ordering Galileo to withdraw his finding that the Earth circles the Sun. Eppur si muove.”

    Thank you for your thoughts, knowledge and wisdom, Vince!

  12. Slarti:

    that was a joke. I actually think Rasmussen is pretty accurate. He is calling pretty much even.

    It is going to be pretty close any way you slice it.

    Although I have heard that most polls are weighted to democrats and the evangelical Christians havent even been considered.

    I am going to say Romney takes it at 51% and gets around 285 electoral votes.

  13. Bron,

    You can cling to your superstitions if you’d like—I’m going with the science of Nate Silver and Sam Wang…

  14. here is some superstition:

    The Redskins rule- if the Redskins win at home the incumbent will win, if not the out of power party wins.

    “The Redskins Rule is a trend involving National Football League games and United States presidential elections. Briefly stated, there is a high correlation between the outcome of the last Washington Redskins home football game prior to the U.S. Presidential Election and the outcome of the election: when the Redskins win, the incumbent party wins the electoral vote for the White House; when the Redskins lose, the non-incumbent party wins. This coincidence has been noted by many sports and political commentators and has held true in every election since 1940, except for that of 2004.[1][2]”

    Sorry guys.

  15. As the guru always begins his first lesson to the neophyte in meditation: “Whatever you do, you must not think of monkeys.”

    Or, as Joseph O’Connor and John Seymour put it in their book Introduction to Neuro-Linguisitic Programming:

    Negatives exist only in language, not experience. Negative commands work just like positive commands. The unconscious mind does not process the linguistic negative and simply disregards it. A parent or teacher who tells a child not to do something is ensuring that the child will do it again. Tell a tightrope walker, “Be careful!” not “Don’t slip!”

    What you resist persists because it still has your attention.

    Hence, in American elections, the admonition, “Don’t vote for the Evil Other,” only assures that Evil will win.

  16. “I thought this was going to be an article about how the media is concealing the failure of Obama concerning Benghazi.”

    That would be really funny because Obama didn’t fail in Benghazi. If anyone failed, it would be Hillary Clinton and the CIA did. And this is coming from someone who has repeatedly said Obama isn’t fit to be President and in fact is aiding and abetting treason by failing to prosecute the Bush administration for their crimes. There are a lot of legitimate criticisms of Obama, starting but not ending with his assumption of the Imperial power to execute American citizens without due process, but “the failure of Obama concerning Benghazi”? Is a nonsense non-issue that is so weak the GOP propagandists (such as yourself) haven’t been able to get any media traction with it. You know, like you are failing right now.

    “Turns out, it’s some sort of propaganda against Republicans.”

    It’s a factual story that reflects poorly on Republicans, but apparently you missed this disclaimer in your rush to do (really lame) damage control for the GOP: “And the sad, sad part of this sad, sad tale is if I went through and changed the subject matter of the report and the names and teams of the players, every single one of you wouldn’t have a hard time believing that such shenanigans were being played upon the People and with the facts of the matter. This story isn’t just a story of partisan ills and malfeasance, but a story of another systemic ill based in both propaganda and the corruption that is modern campaign finance where Senators seek to lie to you blatantly to appease their wealthy donors over looking out for your best interests as citizens.” To be clear: I think all political parties suck (GOP, DNC, LP). None of them are working in the best interests of the People but instead work for their own enrichment and self-aggrandizement and nobody – NOBODY – gets a free pass because of the letter following their name. Not even you, “Humbert” – (R – Trollville).

    But as for the GOP specifically? Screw the GOP. It’s their venal kowtowing economic policies that have driven the economy into the ditch and their war for endless war on behalf of the personal profit of the Bush family and the corporate profits of Exxon and Halliburton that have taken this country to the brink of fascism by using fear as a weapon against the American people over a phenomenon that is about as likely to kill you as your own furniture (that would be terrorism for the boys and girls paying attention to the facts out there). I hope that was clear enough of a partisan position statement for you. “Humbert”.

    “How ironic.”

    What isn’t ironic is that a boot licking fascist toady for the GOP such as yourself, “Humbert”, doesn’t know the meaning of the word “irony”. That is what is known as “expected”. Irony is “the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect”. I meant exactly what I said about the GOP and the other parties as well. There is nothing funny about this story unless you’re the kind of schmuck who thinks having his elected representatives lie to the public for their personal gain is funny.

    Just to be clear.

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