BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Syrian journalist Zaina Erhaim told the AP this week that while Syria is still called Syria on the map she could no longer recognize it because, she said, if you can think about an ordinary Syrian who wants to go from Daraa to Idlib, can you think about how many countries or nationalities he's going to be passing to reach there? AP noted that a short list would include Lebanon, Hezbollah, Syrian troops, Russian pilots, al Qaeda-linked jihadis, US-allied Kurdish forces and Turkish tank crews. It’s a grim illustration of a universal truth, that national lanes and borders have always been real and imaginary, at the same time. In fact, the world map that we’re so used to seeing, known as the Mercator projection, is riddled with topographical and political distortion. Its flaws were famously unpacked on the TV show The West Wing.
FALLOW: Look at Greenland, now look at Africa.
FALLOW: The two land masses appear to be roughly the same size.
FALLOW: Would it blow your mind if I told you that Africa is, in reality, 14 times larger?
SAYLES: Here we have Europe drawn considerably larger than South America when at 6.9 million square miles South America is almost double the size of Europe's 3.8 million. Germany appears in the middle of the map when it's in the northernmost quarter of the Earth.
JOSH: Wait, wait…you're telling me that Germany isn't where we
think it is?
FALLOW: Nothing's where you think it is….When Third World countries are misrepresented, they're likely to be valued
less. When Mercator maps exaggerate the importance of Western civilization, when the top of the map is given to the northern hemisphere and the bottom is given to the southern…then people
will tend to adopt top and bottom attitudes.
C.J.: Where else could you put the Northern Hemisphere but on
SAYLES: On the bottom.
C.J.: Yeah, but you can't do that.
FALLOW: Why not?
C.J.: 'Cause it's freakin’ me out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Mercator projection remains the template for Google Maps, the world's preferred mapping service, but Google sometimes compounds these age-old distortions because of its eagerness to please, because maps are essentially political and Google is virtually omnipotent.
Miranda Bogen, a political analyst at a nonprofit called Upturn, has been tracking Google Maps’ thorny foray into politics. Miranda, welcome to the show.
MIRANDA BOGEN: Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, Google would have us believe that it's a completely neutral geopolitical actor, and yet, not so much. I mean, for instance, both Palestine and Israel claim Jerusalem as its capital, and yet, if you search “capital of Israel” in Google Maps, it’ll take you to Jerusalem, and if you search “capital of Palestine” it'll also take you to Jerusalem.
Why these multiple versions of the map?
MIRANDA BOGEN: Google wants to organize all of the information without taking a position. Maps, they’re so tied to identity that it would not be in Google’s interest to show users in one country a map that made a claim about their particular borders if that was offensive to those users. Those users would turn to Google’s competitors, Microsoft Bing or Apple Maps.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sure, they would. [LAUGHS]
MIRANDA BOGEN: [LAUGHS] That’s the theory, anyway. And users have threatened to leave Google Maps when they've seen maps that offend them. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the borders of Arunachal Pradesh, a region administered by India but claimed as a section of Tibet by China (which also claims Tibet), it’s one of several contested areas along the border. How did they deal with that one?
MIRANDA BOGEN: So in 2007, it had looked like Google changed the color of a border in its Google Earth product in a way that implied the territory was administered by China but claimed by India when, in fact, it was the reverse. When an Indian publication pointed this out, Google said that it marks its border according to international standards. But the next week the map went back to its original labels.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] But then in 2009, there was a bug in Google's software update. It showed Indian users the name of the region in Chinese characters, and this was going on as the two countries were preparing for a, a meeting to discuss border issues.
MIRANDA BOGEN: Exactly. This is also a problem because there are these local laws that require maps to show whatever the government of that country authoritatively says is true.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, now there are three maps, right? Basically, there's the one that the Chinese users see, the one that the Indian users see the map that the rest of the world sees.
MIRANDA BOGEN: Google realized it was able to show local versions of maps that comply with local laws and local expectations but also that it could show a different map to the rest of the world, conveying that this was a contested area.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But they don't want to show that to the very people who couldn't be more aware that they’re contested.
MIRANDA BOGEN: These companies are constrained by the markets that they operate in, so they might not be able to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This mess happened in 2009. We come to 2010. A Nicaraguan military commander named Edén Pastora led an invasion across its southern border into Costa Rica. Pastora told the press that he was in the right, according to Google Maps.
MIRANDA BOGEN: And there were headlines covering that incident, calling it the first Google Maps war --
-- which is astounding.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: We know Google is powerful but strong enough to start a war? Almost.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Nicaragua accidentally invaded Costa Rica because of a Google Maps mistake.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: A Nicaraguan troop commander entered an area near the San Juan River and took down Costa Rica's flag and raised its own Nicaraguan flag. Nicaragua blamed bad border markings on Google Maps.
MIRANDA BOGEN: When you really looked closely, it became apparent that the Nicaraguan troops actually went into the area before consulting Google Maps.
But Google Maps was a convenient foil.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Because it had incorrectly marked the border.
MIRANDA BOGEN: Exactly. And the Costa Rican government reached out to Google, which then conferred with the US State Department, which provided some of the data about that border, and they eventually fixed the error, even though the Nicaraguan government asked them to keep it as it was.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And it was significant that while the United Nations is technically the world's cartographic authority, Costa Rica first turned to Google to remedy the situation. And while Google is informed by the UN's decisions, it doesn't have to comply with them. When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, what did the UN say and what did Google do?
MIRANDA BOGEN: The UN initially condemned the move. The international community didn't want to condone Russian action. What Google did was it created a version of its maps to portray the annexation to the Russian users.
But for the Ukrainian browsers, it didn't show any difference in the conclusive border.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I can't imagine a more palpable example of how the digital world can lock us so tightly into our echo chambers that we never have to recognize a universal truth.
MIRANDA BOGEN: That’s exactly right. As companies show users what they want to see, what they expect to see, they become accustomed to seeing more of that. And then when they're confronted with a different opinion, they’re all the more ready to argue over that because they’re sure that their version of reality is the one that the entire world ought to believe. Two years after Russia's initial invasion, Google actually changed the labels of certain places on the Crimean Peninsula and Russia actually accused Google’s move of “topographical cretinism.”
And Russia actually then threatened Google's ability to do business within Russia if it didn't change it back. And a few days later, they did change it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Google has gone its own way, despite what the UN tells the world to do. Has it ever helped a situation or has it only complicated them?
MIRANDA BOGEN: When South Sudan gained independence in 2011, it was admitted to the United Nations two days later but that declaration didn't actually include any data about borders. Because there was no authoritative source of the geographical information, Google actually collaborated with local citizens, with the World Bank and with some UN organizations to crowd source that data, to ask locals, you know, what is the border of this new territory? And they were able to publish that data much more quickly than traditional mapping institutions might have been able to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s like Google really is its own nation state and stepped in here to negotiate.
MIRANDA BOGEN: I think they would be hesitant to characterize themselves as a nation state --
-- but all the tech companies, they are taking on a really unprecedented role in global affairs. They’ve amassed so many users and they're so influential that anything they do lends legitimacy to whatever it is that they’re conveying. It’s hard to anticipate the impact that technology will have on the institutions we’ve relied on for decades, if not hundreds of years. We can hope and work towards a future where that technology serves our interests but if we don't work together and if we don't expect companies to think bigger than their immediate interests, then we’re not going to end up in that world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Although why should we hold Google to a different standard than the United States government. [LAUGHS]
MIRANDA BOGEN: [LAUGHS] Well, as companies have taken on roles that have traditionally been that of nation states, I think we should hold them to a higher standard. If they’re creating maps, building the infrastructure for democratic discourse, we should expect that they are going to be accountable to their users in a way that goes beyond profit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Miranda, thank you very much.
MIRANDA BOGEN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Miranda Bogen is a policy analyst at Upturn, a DC nonprofit that studies the intersection of technology and social issues.