Conde Nast hit by the Streisand Effect

Many media blogs are buzzing with speculations about Conde Nast's decision to pull a recent GQ feature about Russia from GQ's web-site as well as to prevent the paper version of the magazine from being distributed in Russia. NPR has the best summary of the matter so far; Julian Sanchez at the Atlantic offers some interesting analysis, calling Conde Nast's an act of self-censorship.

Despite the fact that the story has not been posted GQ's web-site, it's still widely available online - often, in the scanned form. Gawker has published it, asking readers to help with translating it into Russian (and they seem to be progressing fast on the translation front). Gawker's publisher Nick Denton says he is ready to deal with copyright complaints as they come in.

Has Conde Nast inadvertently exposed itself to the Streisand Effect? I've written extensively about this Internet phenomenon, whereby efforts to remove or censor something backfire and bring even greater publicity to the subject.

The Streisand Effect angle of the GQ story is fascinating but for reasons that have nothing to do with the magazine's distribution in Russia. I doubt that anyone in Russia would be surprised by the revisionist accounts of terrorism in pre-Putin Russia that are investigated in the GQ piece. The theory that FSB and other Russian government agencies might be behind the devastating apartment bombings that gave Kremlin a formal excuse to launch the Second Chechen campaign received a fair amount of coverage in Russia; several books on the subject have been published, most of them of the La Rouche conspiratorial variety.

The Russian audience will find very little new stuff in the GQ piece; I doubt that it would result in Putin having to explain himself on television. Besides, Mikhail Trepashkin, who is profiled by GQ in the said piece, is a rather marginalized figure in Russia: his claims are very easy to dismiss, due to his established or imaginary connections to the disgraced Russian oligarch Berezovsky, the US State Department and a host of international NGOs - the trinity of distrust in modern Russia.

But the growing fuss about the article will inevitably create a lot of negative publicity for Putin in the West. I bet that if Conde Nast didn't pull the plug on the article, few of us in the US or Western Europe would have even noticed it. After all, debating the causes of terrorism in Russia circa 1999 is not particularly relevant today; that GQ story was at least five years overdue. Today, however, thanks to accusations of self-censorship as well as Conde Nast's potential dependance on Russian advertising revenue, this story will travel very far.

This begs the question: was there any other way to discredit Putin more effectively than to ban an otherwise very obscure piece? Conde Nast's actions are almost a textbook example of how to build publicity using the Streisand Effect; I can't think of any other time when Gawker ran a Russia-related story about politics, terrorism and Chechnya. For once, I think that anyone concerned with the state of modern Russia and the rise of Putin, regardless of whether they subscribe to numerous conspiracy theories, should thank Conde Nast for their incompetence: there is hardly a better way to get people talking about it. Well done, Conde Nast.    

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