Politics and Cartography: The Power of Deception through Distortion

July 11, 2018

On this anti-Communist map, the dark red of the USSR fills the space, while the U.S. is barely visible over the horizon. Time Magazine. Source: Cornell University – PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography

Maps are powerful ways to convey information, yet they are deceptive. Cartographers have dealt with this dilemma for centuries as they have tried to flatten the ellipsoidal earth onto flat pieces of paper. Mathematics simply does not allow the mapmaker to preserve variables such as size, shape, direction, and distance simultaneously. Thus, maps inherently distort reality. A common example of this is the Mercator map projection, which gradually distorts size and distance as latitude increases, until Greenland appears larger than Africa. However, such geometric distortions are unavoidable. What is more concerning are the distortions a mapmaker can introduce into the content of a map. A cartographer—or a nation—can change elements such as territorial boundaries just as easily as they can change map projections.

Many people are generally unaware consumers of maps. They assume that the cartographer is both competent and truthful, and that they are portraying the information as it actually exists. In this blind trust lies the potential to influence public opinion through careful distortion. Governments are aware of this and use this to affect the beliefs of both their citizens and others abroad. In his book How to Lie with Maps, Mark Monmonier explains how nations can enhance map features that support their cause and suppress those that do not, all under the guise of an official map.1

Historically, maps have often been used as much for political and ideological purposes as they have been for reference and navigation. In "Deconstructing the Map," J.B. Harley explains that maps are never truly objective, despite what cartographers may claim. The Imperial Federation map (Figure 1) is a prime example of this. Produced in 1886, it shows the vast territory of the British Empire; an intricate web of sea routes connects Britain's many possessions. The map is also trimmed with artwork around the borders, which includes drawings of all of the people controlled by the empire. All of them are facing towards the center, where a likeness of Britannia sits atop the world. Its use of the Mercator projection and grid lines may give the illusion that this map is an actual tool of navigation, but its purpose is propaganda. This map's true intention is to embellish the grandeur of the Empire using cartographic license.

Imperial Federation, 1886
Figure 1. Imperial Federation, 1886. Map reproduction courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.

During the 20th century, maps continued to play an important role in national political strategy. Propaganda maps were developed by every nation to influence the beliefs of their people. The goal of these maps was simple: to generate public support against a country's enemies. Figure 2 shows a German propaganda map that was published in 1914, the year WWI began. It shows how Germany and Austria-Hungary were valiantly defending themselves from the surrounding threats—sending the Russian bear and English bulldog retreating with their tails between their legs.

Figure 2. German propaganda map from WWI. This map shows how the Germans viewed themselves and Austria-Hungary as having to fend off surrounding nations. Anonymous map printed in 1914 by the Verlagsgesellschaft Union in Charlottenburg, a suburb of Berlin. Image courtesy of Tim Bryars Ltd.

 The Americans also used similar techniques in the Cold War. The map in Figure 3, produced in 1956 by the Research Institute of America, shows the vast influence of the Communists (USSR) across the globe. It presents the USSR as looming over the world; it uses bellicose terminology such as "menace" and "vital" to enhance anti-communist sentiment. These maps use vivid images to create narratives supporting national interests by influencing the beliefs of their people.

Figure 3. A map published by the Research Institute of America that shows how the Communists (USSR) threaten nations around the world. Cornell University – PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography.

The intent of these historical examples is clearly evident. These maps employ egregious embellishments and seek to influence opinions. They are unmistakable pieces of propaganda. However, nations can also employ less conspicuous, yet still powerful, cartographic techniques.

In 2014, China revealed a new map that shows the extent of the territory they claim. One key change is that this map is vertically oriented, which makes, according to a Twitter post by a Chinese news agency, "Islands of the South China Sea better shown than traditional map[s]." Not only does it make them more visible, it makes them one of the prominent features of the map. This is important because the map includes China's controversial "10-dashed line," which essentially claims the entirety of the South China Sea and Taiwan. The Chinese cite historical maps and documents as the basis for their claims. However, most islands in the South China Sea are disputed between the countries that border it. Consequently, many nations have denounced this as indicative of China's increasingly expansionary policies. Yet, these claims, however controversial, remain ink on the map.

Another less publicized yet still concerning map is the political map of India produced by the country's official survey office (Figure 4) in 2015. This map explicitly claims the entirety of the Jammu and Kashmir regions, which have been extremely contested for several decades, as explicitly controlled by India. In fact, India and Pakistan both have claims in this region. Pakistan's official map uses more cartographically-accepted principles by labeling the region "Disputed Territory." Yet, through the use of color, Pakistan's map also makes the region appear predominantly under singular control. In reality, neither country exercises complete control over the region and their claims remain cartographic fiction.

Figure 4. The official political map of India. It explicitly claims the entirety of the Jammu and Kashmir regions (Northwest portion of the map). Source: Survey of India.

While these claims might only exist on the map, they have real repercussions. The combined populations of these countries number in the billions, so these maps, which represent the official positions of their respective governments, will shape the opinions of over a quarter of the world's population. Moreover, China and India, the dominant powers of the region, have many disputes and, at best, a lukewarm relationship. As they continue to develop, what are now simply lines on a map could become reality at the cost of many lives.

Cartography is a powerful instrument of national policy, one that governments can use to influence peoples' beliefs and affect international affairs. With the simple stroke of a pen—or click of a mouse—the entire meaning of a map can change. These political distortions are far more worrisome than unavoidable geographic distortions, in that cartographers have introduced deception into the process for political purposes. Mapmakers can enlarge their own nations, pronounce wealth, or enhance power. The opposite is also true: they can make enemies appear small, exaggerate poverty, and marginalize unfavorable people, cultures, and countries. Maps are not intrinsically bad; they are just inherently distortions of the truth, with errors coming from reducing three dimensions into two or from deceptively-infused bias used to achieve political advantage. Users must therefore be aware of the product they are consuming. People must scrutinize the maps they use because the stories maps tell are powerful, but they are never completely true.


1 Mark S. Monmonier, How to Lie with Maps, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 132.

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