The University of California paid $175K to scrub the internet of this picture

In November 2011, a peaceful protest at the University of California Davis became an international news story when a UC Davis police officer casually pepper-sprayed seated protesters.

One image in particular became a flashpoint:

The image depicts UC Davis police officer John Pike spraying seated protesters. And apparently the University of California spent at least $175,000 on a public relations campaign to scrub the internet of this image, according to documents obtained by The Sacramento Bee.

Multiple public relations firms were hired by UC Davis, with the intent of deploying “an online branding campaign designed to clean up the negative attention the University of California, Davis, and Chancellor Katehi have received related to the events that transpired in November 2011,” as one of the firms involved described it.

Indeed, if you search for “UC Davis” in Google Images, the photo above no longer appears as a top result.

If you take the extra step of adding “pepper spray” to the search terms, the results differ dramatically:

Additionally, the Wikipedia page for UC Davis features the incident prominently. It’s the only item listed under the university’s “history” section, right up front:

Since the University of California is a public university, the $175,000 used here was a mixture of public funds and tuition — taxpayer money and student-paid fees.

University officials, however, seem to miss the point that this money shouldn’t be used for covering up scandals.

“We have worked to ensure that the reputation of the university, which the chancellor leads, is fairly portrayed,” UC Davis spokeswoman Dana Topousis told The Sacramento Bee. “We wanted to promote and advance the important teaching, research and public service done by our students, faculty and staff, which is the core mission of our university.”

Apparently no one at UC Davis has heard of The Streisand effect. Maybe you haven’t either! As Wikipedia succinctly puts it, “The Streisand effect is the phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely, usually facilitated by the Internet.” And here we are, writing about the UC Davis scandal nearly five years after it happened.

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