What does ‘The Spear’ have in common with Barbara Streisand?

You know your country’s digital landscape is maturing when locally brewed memes make international news. Brett Murray’s controversial The Spear caused an inadvertent ruckus in the South African media, and web-going South Africans were on the forefront of spreading the word, sharing news content and creating their own graphics lampooning the situation.

Thousands of news stories, images and Facebook shares later, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone around the office water cooler or in the grocery store queue who isn’t familiar with the painting.

But this raises the question of whether any of this debate would have happened — in fact, if anyone outside the Johannesburg art world would even have heard of the painting — had it not been for the South African ruling party’s furious attempts to limit its coverage in the first place.

This is not unusual, in so far as the concept has earned itself a title. The Streisand effect is the phenomenon that occurs when trying to cover something up inadvertently throws it into the public spotlight.

It happened to singer Barbra Streisand when she tried to suppress pictures of her Malibu mansion, suing the photographer who had taken them from the air and added them to a public directory. The non-story exploded into public awareness as lawyer letters began to fly, and 420 000 otherwise-oblivious web users viewed the image, wondering what could possibly be so interesting about it.

The same thing is happening with The Spear, and things always get interesting when lawyers are involved. Citing defamation, indecency and other strong words, South African president Jacob Zuma’s legal team filed an urgent interdict to get the painting censored – both in the real-world and online. Of course, this made people want to see it all the more.

And they certainly have been looking: it wouldn’t be wrong to consider this a viral story. Aside from dominating the news on pretty much every local news portal, the furore has spawned a host of trending Twitter hashtags – #zumaspear, #thespear and a dozen other variations.

Facebook users have been sharing numerous doctored images and adverts — one Mr Bean parody alone garnered over 1 800 shares. When the painting was vandalised, a journalist on the scene immediately snapped some photos and tweeted them — resulting in thousands of views, and hundreds of retweets. You can even make your own joke image now, thanks to one enterprising web user who put together Dickstagram.

The ANC’s reaction has exposed some ongoing questions about privacy, reputation and free speech in the age of the internet. This case involves a public persona and a publicly available work of art.

Everyone has the rights to privacy and dignity, although it’s often argued that public figures like politicians and celebrities have chosen to limit these rights in return for recognition and its associated benefits.

The ability for citizens to comment on the conduct of the president speaks to one of the South African Constitution’s primary rights. And on the internet, who can stop them? Julius Malema and the ruling party’s youth wing, the ANCYL tried to do this by threatening to have Twitter shut down. In demanding that all online instances of The Spear be censored, the ANC is missing an important point.

The matter is completely out of their hands, and largely outside the country’s legal jurisdiction too. Even if the case is upheld and the image is banned, there’s no stopping its spread on the web. Parody images are also protected by law.

One thing is sure, though – the web has a short attention span. The Spear is big news today, but remember when everyone was saving the rhino a few months ago? Soon enough, a new rallying cry will sound and digital citizens everywhere will turn to focus on the scandal du jour.



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