The war in Ukraine reminds us that cards can be weapons
When Apple suspended sales of iPhones and other products in Russia this week, it also made a more subtle intervention. Along with Google, it has disabled traffic updates for its live mapping service in Ukraine as a precaution against the invading army using it to attack.
Russia has its own satellite imagery and mapping tools, rather than relying on Apple to plan its lead. But the first outward sign of the invasion came when a traffic jam caused by a military column appeared on the Ukrainian border, and was spotted on Google Maps by a professor in California. It was a visual clue in the information war.
Maps are essential in times of war. Since the start of the Russian invasion, there has been a steady stream of videos and photographs on social media, and frontline correspondents and camera crews are providing in-depth coverage. We cannot grasp the magnitude of the conflict without seeing the locations of Kyiv and Kharkiv, or how the Dnipro River flows through the country.
Sometimes things don’t fully fall into place in our minds until there are maps that visually display the relationships and distances between people, establishments, and objects. The areas of Russian invaders pushing towards Ukrainian cities last week held a dark fascination; the Financial Times data visualization team is constantly updating its own charts.
Many cards feel personal. It was impossible, at the height of the pandemic, not to be gripped by graphs showing infection rates in countries and their level nearby. We look for “you are here” signs to see how close we are to destinations or how exposed we are to danger.
The visual influence of data plotted on maps was powerfully illustrated elsewhere this week, with the release of new international research into the origin of the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan in 2019. The virus is suspected to have escaped from the city’s Institute of Virology. , but the studies said it came from live animals in Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, as China said.
the early case maps around the Wuhan market are not definitive evidence but they seem convincing. They recall the famous map of an 1854 cholera outbreak in London’s Soho, based on local infection data analyzed by physician John Snow, which established that the disease was spread by contaminated water.
But the strength of maps in conveying useful information also makes them useful for propaganda. “Give me a map, then let me see what I have left to conquer the whole world,” says Central Asian Emperor Tamburlaine in Christopher Marlowe’s 16th-century play. Mapping is “not a neutral objective pursuit, but one charged with power,” notes one article.
Vladimir Putin’s rambling speech about Russia-Ukraine ties on the eve of his invasion was difficult to understand. Kremlin apologists quickly produced a map of Ukraine showing areas assigned to the country by Russian czars and Soviet communist leaders, including Nikita Khrushchev. The card’s message was clear: what Russia has given, it can also take back.
There is a long history of nations using maps to advance their claims to imperial possession. As Mark Monmonier writes in how to lie with cards, grand duchies who “looked tired, rundown and frayed around the edges” could take a sheet of paper, draw a map of the territory, “and presto: you were now the leader of a new sovereign and self-governing country”.
China unveiled a new map in 2014 that, instead of placing disputed islets and reefs in the South China Sea in an inset box of claimed territory, extended its reach far out into the ocean by the Philippines and Vietnam. . “This vertical map of China has an important significance in promoting better understanding among citizens,” an official said.
Russian manipulation of maps often involved concealment as well as propaganda. The Soviet Union was extremely wary of showing precise geographical data on its public maps, for fear of being invaded, and introduced visual distortions and blurs from the 1930s: tourist maps of Moscow do not showed no buildings such as the KGB headquarters.
The best news is that it’s getting harder and harder for empire builders to control the visual narrative. Huge amounts of map and spatial data are now available through private providers such as Apple and Google, as well as satellite services such as Maxar, Capella Space and Planet, and public databases. Open source intelligence can paint a startling picture.
A small but telling one is the Russian Oligarch Jets Twitter Account, which tracks private jets and helicopters owned by the likes of Roman Abramovich and Oleg Deripaska, using public data from a flight enthusiast site. Knowing that they make their own way around the world is one thing: observing their way is more engaging and enraged.
Russia’s unease with open intelligence was perhaps exemplified this week by the cyberattack that temporarily took down Liveuamap, a Ukraine-based open-source group that gathered invasion data and imagery from social media and social networks. other sources and linked them to maps. Although the source of the attack is unclear, attackers often want to conceal information.
So, like consumers of other forms of news and information, map readers must guard against being misled. Indeed, the psychological power of the cards is so strong that the danger is greater. When a country redraws its borders and plants the new map next to its national flag, look for a more reliable guide.