from the the-streisand-effect-works-in-mysterious-ways dept
Here’s quite an example of the Streisand Effect. Buzzfeed investigative reporters have an incredible new series of stories about the massive new prison/concentration camps built in China to house the various Muslim minority populations they’ve been imprisoning (Uighurs, Kazakhs and others). But what’s relevant from our standpoint here at Techdirt is just how they were able to track this information down. As revealed in a separate article, Buzzfeed’s reporters effectively used the Streisand Effect. They looked at the maps provided online by the Chinese internet giant Baidu and spotted a bunch of areas that were “blanked out.” The reporters noticed that this graying out was deliberate and different than the standard “general reference tiles” that Baidu would show when it didn’t have high resolution enough imagery.
Once they realized that something must be going on in those spots, they found many more examples that matched in places where the reported complexes were:
Once we found that we could replicate the blank tile phenomenon reliably, we started to look at other camps whose locations were already known to the public to see if we could observe the same thing happening there. Spoiler: We could. Of the six camps that we used in our feasibility study, five had blank tiles at their location at zoom level 18 in Baidu, appearing only at this zoom level and disappearing as you zoomed in further. One of the six camps didn?t have the blank tiles ? a person who had visited the site in 2019 said it had closed, which could well have explained it. However, we later found that the blank tiles weren?t used in city centers, only toward the edge of cities and in more rural areas. (Baidu did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
And then it was only a hop skip and a jump to finding more such tiles… and then cross referencing them with satellite imagery from other sources — including Google Earth, Sentinel Hub, and Planet Labs. And, voila:
We quickly began to notice how large many of these places are ? and how heavily securitized they appear to be, compared to the earlier known camps. In site layout, architecture, and security features, they bear greater resemblance to other prisons across China than to the converted schools and hospitals that formed the earlier camps in Xinjiang. The newer compounds are also built to last, in a way that the earlier conversions weren?t. The perimeter walls are made of thick concrete, for example, which takes much longer to build and perhaps later demolish, than the barbed wire fencing that characterizes the early camps.
In almost every county, we found buildings bearing the hallmarks of detention centers, plus new facilities with the characteristics of large, high-security camps and/or prisons. Typically, there would be an older detention center in the middle of the town, while on the outskirts there would be a new camp and prison, often in recently developed industrial areas. Where we hadn?t yet found these facilities in a given county, this pattern pushed us to keep on looking, especially in areas where there was no recent satellite imagery. Where there was no public high-resolution imagery, we used medium-resolution imagery from Planet Labs and Sentinel to locate likely sites. Planet was then kind enough to give us access to high-resolution imagery for these locations and to task a satellite to capture new imagery of some areas that hadn?t been photographed in high resolution since 2006. In one county, this allowed us to see that the detention center that had previously been identified by other researchers had been demolished and to find the new prison just out of town.
In other words, the Chinese government’s efforts to suppress the existence of these concentration camps helped reporters locate them. It’s long been known that internet maps in China were slightly off in China, in part due to deliberate obfuscation on geographic data, but the idea that they’d fuzz out maps in a way that now reveals just how massive their concentration camps are is fascinating (and, of course, troubling).
The more light that can be shed on what China is doing to Muslims in that country, the better. And the fact that its own ham-fisted attempts at censorship helped enable reporters to discover the extent of its concentration camps is clearly noteworthy.