Whenever there’s a major news event, there will be an outbreak of fake, misattributed or misleading images that purport to be about that event. That goes for maps as well.
Take the serious situation with Australia’s bushfires at the moment. Social media is jammed with maps showing practically the whole damn continent on fire, or superimposed on another continent to let people there know just how big Australia is (and also on fire). It’s a profoundly serious situation, and as NASA’s Joshua Stevens points out, it’s possible to present an accurate map that shows its seriousness without resorting to hyperbole.
The trouble is, social media thrives on hyperbole, because it thrives on “engagement”—which means outrage and anger and, as Joshua Emmons notes, as we get inured to a certain level of outrage, even more outrage is needed just to get noticed.
Which brings me to this thing, which is showing up all over the social web:
Geographer Anthony Robinson is studying the phenomenon of viral maps—maps that are widely disseminated on social media, many of which are terrible: superficial, inaccurate or deliberately misleading. One burst of virality occurred in November 2016, when there was an eruption of maps, some silly, others dead serious, showing the outcome of the U.S. presidential election “if only x voted” (where x was women, or people of colour, or some other demographic). This episode is apparently one of the subjects of Robinson’s paper in Cartography and Geographic Information Science, in which he sketches out a framework for evaluating viral maps’ design and the ways they spread. The paper is behind a paywall, but here’s a news article about it from Penn State, where Robinson works.
National Geographic has digitized its entire map archive—every map the magazine has published since 1888, more than six thousand of them—but you won’t be able to browse through it. (Subscribers can access the maps through their digital archive by consulting the issues they first appeared, but, again, no public access to the database.) What they’re doing instead is posting them through social media channels, forming the basis of “Map of the Day” posts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Can’t help but feel they’re teasing us a bit.
The map is bad, is my point, and obviously bad, and I sincerely wish that we didn’t have to talk about it. But we do. Because maps like this one aren’t merely birdbrained schlock: They are a social media plague, a scourge that can reduce just about any social network to gibbering in-fights in the space of a few virally shared minutes. We’re all susceptible; we’re all defenseless. A dumb internet map with incendiary falsehoods is coming for all of us, and there is just about nothing we can do to stop it.
The formula goes something like this: Map plus declaration of definitive statewide preference equals profit. Profit here means eyeballs or clicks or reshares or, most likely, some combination of all three, especially the last one, because it turns out that there are few sentiments more appealing than Oy, check out the terrible things the cretins in [Bad State] get up to.
The truth is we’re all very boring, and our preferences aren’t all that different.
Worth reading in full.
The problem is that even though their methodologies are shoddy and their conclusions are dubious, clickbaity maps like these are popular. The competition for attention is fierce, and maps are a quick and dirty way of generating traffic. My traffic skyrockets whenever I post a link to something even remotely like these maps (xkcd is usually a safe bet), and if I resorted to posting maps like these all the time, I’d be making muchmore money at this. But I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the mirror.
BuzzFeed’s Jim Waterson calls out a map making the social media rounds that purports to show the results of the 2016 local elections in the U.K. Only it doesn’t. It’s apparently being spread by Labour supporters keen to defend their party’s performance in the elections and convinced their party is receiving unfair media treatment—and of course, people tend to believe what they want to believe. Waterson goes on to show how to make a fake map of your very own. [Thierry Gregorius]
Andrew Wiseman’s “When Maps Lie” was posted on CityLab last year, but its importance is evergreen: it’s about map literacy, and how to avoid being fooled by confusing, misleading or simply bad maps. This is very much what Mark Monmonier did in How to Lie with Maps (see my review; Amazon, iBooks); Wiseman updates it for the social media age.
Maps are big these days. Blogs and news sites (including this one) frequently post maps and those maps often go viral—40 maps that explain the world, the favorite TV shows of each U.S. state, and so on. They’re all over Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, and news organizations are understandably capitalizing on the power that maps clearly have in digital space: they can visualize a lot of data quickly and effectively. But they can also visualize a lot of data inaccurately and misleadingly.