Immigration minister Peter Dutton's just became a victim of the 'Streisand effect'

Immigration minister Peter Dutton. Photo: Getty Images.

Australian immigration minister Peter Dutton is trending on social media today, but for the strangest of reasons.

A 21-year-old Somali refugee, Hodan Yasin, set herself on fire at the Nauru detention camp on Monday, a fortnight after another refugee Omid Masoumali, 23, self-immolated there and subsequently died from his injuries. Yasin has been transferred to a Brisbane hospital in a critical condition.

In response, Dutton appeared to blame asylum seeker advocates for the incidents, saying they were offering refugees “false hope” and trying to force the government to change its policy.

“I have previously expressed my frustration and anger at advocates and others who are in contact with those in regional processing centres and who are encouraging some of these people to behave in a certain way, believing that that pressure exerted on the Australian Government will see a change in our policy in relation to our border protection measures,” the minister said.

“The behaviours have intensified in recent times and as we see, they have now turned to extreme acts with terrible consequences.

“We are not going to change those policies, and the advocates, by providing false hope to these people, really [are] to be condemned.”

He added that any protests were not about living conditions on Manus Island and Nauru.

“There is not a complaint about the living conditions, the medical services, the education, the 300 people or so who are employed on Nauru, the 30-odd who have started up small businesses,” he said. “These complaints are largely because people want to come to Australia.”

But while those comments caused outrage among refugee advocates who said the minister was trying to blame the victims, something else happened in the bubble of Australian politics to make the minister a talking point.

His staff objected to a photo by Fairfax photographer Alex Ellinghausen of their boss, which gave him a slightly sinister hue.

It was tweeted by Fairfax senior writer Stephanie Peatling, who runs the daily political blog here.

Here’s her take on what happened next:

Keen observers would have noticed that I tweeted some of Alex’s photos from the press conference as they came in.

The one below caused particular consternation for Mr Dutton’s media team (he has three official press secretaries, the most of any minister other than the Prime Minister).

Mr Dutton’s office felt it was “unflattering” and demanded to know why I had tweeted it. I tweeted it with the caption “Eek” meaning that if I were a press secretary to Mr Dutton I wouldn’t be thrilled to see the picture. Mr Dutton’s offsider took considerable umbrage with it and most strongly protested its presence on the socials.

After one of those conversations where both parties say the same thing over and over again I agreed I would take it off twitter so long as I could say they asked me to do so.

Here’s a wider version of the photo, with a similar effect across the minister’s face:

And that’s when the internet took over with what’s known as the “Streisand effect”, which is described as “the phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicising the information more widely”. The term was coined after Barbra Streisand tried to stop photos of her California house being published in 2003, but only succeeded in making sure everyone knew about it as a result.

The photo has now been widely shared, more so than if the minister’s office had not intervened.

The exchange led Peatling to make the following observation in hindsight:

One tends to think two people setting themselves on fire – one of whom has died – would be one’s chief concerns in a situation like this.

But everyone’s different.

Image is everything.

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