Maps chart territory and can thus be used and abused, for example, to convey one’s own interpretation of a territorial dispute. In such cases maps exhibit their considerable potential to invoke political disputes.
With the advent of online mapping and the gripe very few large companies have on it (think Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and very few others – but really mostly the former two) the political dimension of the most widespread maps is in the hands of not too many corporate engineers and developers.
An event exemplifying the political potential of online maps was a (minor) invasion of Costa Rican territory by Nicaraguan forces, which was claimed to be due to an error in Google Maps. Then in August 2011, in the process of the insurgency in Libya Google the Green Square in Tripoli has been renamed to Martyr’s Square (its name before Moammar Gadhafi had taken power). Apparently, the change was made by a user but it passed Google’s quality control process, thus achieving some more official status, and was published to the global public when it went online on the world’s most popular map portal. In this case the map didn’t cause a conflict and probably many people found the change non-controversial, but the example still attests to the power which the companies running map websites have. Indeed the perceived allocative power of Google and Co. leads some countries to pushing development of their own map portals (granted, not for pristine reasons, I imagine).
I learnt about a new development of political mapping very recently: Apparently the cartographic propaganda is now also infiltrating more traditional media outlets (a.k.a. dead tree media), and of those apparently research journals like Nature, Science and Climatic Change. Nature‘s board condemned this development in a recent editorial which mentions the territorial dispute about the South Chinese Sea (see picture above). Apparently, scientific papers by Chinese researchers more and more contain a disputed dotted boundary line in that region:
Scientists and citizens of surrounding countries are understandably peeved by the maps, which in most cases are completely unrelated to the subjects of the papers in which they are published. The inclusion of the line is not a scientific statement — it is a political one, apparently ordered by the Chinese government. It’s a territorial claim, and it’s being made in the wrong place.
With regard to this and other international disputes, Nature takes the position that scientists should stick to the science. Authors should try to depoliticize their articles as much as possible by avoiding inflammatory remarks, contentious statements and controversial map designations.
If such things can’t be avoided, for example if a study of a country’s resources requires taking account of whether a certain island belongs to it, the map should be marked as ‘under dispute’ or something to that effect. [...]
By avoiding controversy, researchers who keep politics from contaminating their science will keep the doors of collaboration open, and their studies will benefit. Researchers could also, as a by-product, help to defuse political tensions, show the way to mutual benefit and perform a diplomatic service.
Way to go!
And as to the map portals of Google, Microsoft and Yahoo: Only dedicated specialists with strict quality assurance/objectivity guidelines, like a cartographic editorial board, will probably help to deal with delicate situations successfully.