The ability to learn about virtually any topic instantly is one of the beauties of living in the internet era. But it can be a bit of double-edged sword for those who’d prefer the public not be aware of some of these details.

This is the situation Durham Mayor Elaine O’Neal and City Council members DeDreana Freeman and Monique Holsey-Hyman found themselves in when some factual (but unflattering) entries began to appear on their Wikipedia pages.

Indy Week, a left-wing paper covering Durham, wrote a thorough article on the situation.

The information in question covers a variety of topics. First, Holsey-Hyman is under investigation by state officials for allegedly requesting a bribe from a developer to secure her vote on a project. She also is accused of trying to use city staff to work on her campaign.

Freeman, in a highly publicized meltdown, sought to defend Holsey-Hyman from other city council members and staff. The incident involved prolonged screaming of profanity, which then reportedly escalated and became physical, although some of the councilors denied that. An anonymous eye-witness at the fight told Indy Week Freeman punched both the mayor and fellow councilmember Leonardo Williams.

The mayor’s beef with Wikipedia is not nearly as dramatic. She just wants a fascimile of her signature removed. One can easily find the signatures of many public officials, and it is not illegal to possess or publicize them as long as one doesn’t try to use them fraudulently, but she was not happy about her own becoming public.

The trio enlisted the city attorney, Kimberly Rehberg, to try to solve their Wikipedia problems. Rehberg wrote a letter to the Wikimedia Foundation saying that the mayor and councilors were acting in their “official capacities” by making their requests.

But their request was not to have the information changed. Instead they asked for the “identity and real name” of a few Wikipedia writers and editors, whose usernames are Mako001, Willthacheerleader18, and Johnson524. Indy Week reached out to these writers, assuring them of continued anonymity, and learned they were not prominent Durham rivals, as the mayor and councilors likely suspected.

Willthacheerleader18 is “a Raleigh resident who asked the INDY not to reveal her name, says she’s crafted more than 1,000 Wikipedia pages, mostly about women in leadership positions,” and said it was “kind of terrifying” that a legal letter went out demanding to know her identity. Johnson524 said they were “a 17-year-old Johnston County high-school student” who is “terribly ashamed” that posting the signature caused any problems.

It turns out that the Wikimedia Foundation never got the letter because Rehberg sent it to the wrong address. She also created a user name of her own, Kimlynn69 (hopefully a reference to her birth year), and reached out directly to Johnson524 with vague threats of further action.

“Before reaching out to Wikimedia’s general counsel, however, I thought I would first try to resolve this amicably through user channels. I have edited the page today to remove the signature image. If on your end you can permanently delete the .jpeg that you uploaded, I ask that you do so immediately.”

But when the media got wind of this, the embarrassment of the mayor and councilors was amplified far beyond if they had just allowed the posts to remain. This is often called “the Streisand effect.”

According to Wikipedia, a great source for quick info, “The Streisand effect is an unintended consequence of attempts to hide, remove, or censor information, where the effort instead backfires by increasing awareness of that information. It is named after American singer and actress Barbra Streisand, whose attempt to suppress the California Coastal Records Project‘s photograph of her cliff-top residence in Malibu, California, taken to document California coastal erosion, inadvertently drew greater attention to the photograph in 2003.”

When people online heard about Streisand trying to block the image of her home, they became curious and the image was shared countless times, mostly to mess with Streisand. The same applies here. People who had not really thought much recently about the ongoing bribery allegations against Holsey-Hyman or Freeman’s temper tantrum were immediately reminded.

But in addition to being counterintuitive, this attempt to intimidate anonymous people online for daring to discuss real but unflattering details of your political service is the stuff of dysfunctional regimes. What, we have to wonder, would these powerful city officials have done with this information if they sent the letter to the right address, Wikipedia complied with the request, and it turned out the accounts were run by political rivals?