Off the Map: Propaganda vs preference

We all anticipate and expect change in this world — empires rise and fall, fortunes come and go, and people migrate from one place to another. Usually these cycles move along at their own random pace according to the natural course of history, but for some that pace just isn’t in the right direction, nor does it result in the desired outcome.

This happens with many governments that decide mere negotiation for their geopolitical aspirations isn’t adequate or satisfying enough for their purposes. This may happen after they have attempted to resolve a territorial dispute or some other form of conflict, for example. What is a government to do? They could potentially accelerate a resolution by making concessions and compromising, or they could concede their claims and move on to other concerns. Or they could even decide to utilize military force to solidify their position once and for all. This latter option is usually a last resort, and is certainly a complicated and dangerous course of action in today’s world.

So instead of engaging in direct negotiation with the appropriate parties, making concessions or going to war to change the real-world status, an alternative method is to use information to alter the public perception of the issue. This is often labeled as “propaganda,” but in today’s rich environment of information production and consumption, the term propaganda doesn’t fully encapsulate the dynamic at work. This is really a battle for the mindshare of the public, not only in the local country under the government’s jurisdiction but also in the global audience.

I’ve discussed the complexities of maps as content in this column before, and as a reminder here, maps are a special type of content that require a different type of management. While map labels can be localized for legibility, the real issue is whether or not the depiction itself is altered to conform to a local expectation. Is it propaganda when a specific locale demands that certain images, words and/or facts are altered to match what is culturally acceptable to them? How do we as content creators and managers discern the difference between what is a local expectation versus a blatant attempt at misinformation?

In some cases, the difference — or sometimes lack thereof — is made clear through specific actions taken by the source of the information, whether it’s a government or some other entity. Let’s take a look at one such specific case, known as China’s “nine-dash line” that appears on any map produced by the Chinese government.

The nine-dash line first appeared on Chinese maps as an eleven-dash line prior to the formation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. After the formation of the PRC, the line was revised to be nine dashes that were meant to define China’s sovereignty over the majority of the South China Sea area. As such, it implied that highly disputed islands in the sea, such as the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands, are wholly within the sovereign territory of China. Naturally, this depiction on maps has been met with fierce opposition by parties that oppose this assertion, such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, all of which have lodged official complaints against China. In 2009, China submitted its map with the nine-dash line to the United Nations to assert their claim over the South China Sea and this was immediately answered with more official protests.

As many academics and international law experts will confirm, China’s nine-dash line is in violation of any legal precedent, and it is certainly contradictory to the United Nations Convention of the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS), which China itself signed in 1996. So what exactly is the purpose of this odd cartographic artifact that’s existed on Chinese maps for decades?

Interestingly enough, in June 2014, the international court at The Hague posed a similar question to China, in response to the Philippines’ latest protest against China’s increasing activity in the region. The Hague requested that China provide written evidence by the end of 2014 to demonstrate on what legal and historical basis it has continued to assert its sovereignty over the entire South China Sea, as consistently reinforced by the nine-dash line. China has already refused to meet the legal challenge posed by the Philippines. However, in 2010 a spokesperson for China’s Minister of Defense stated that “China has indisputable sovereignty of the South Sea and China has sufficient historical and legal backing,” so The Hague is actively calling out their claims.

And then adding further to the tension, in June 2014, China released a new version of its official map apparently revised in 2013, at first given only to its own military forces and thus remaining something of a mystery. But eventually the new map was revealed and the long-standing but unsubstantiated nine-dash line has now become the ten-dash line — one extra dash added just to the east of Taiwan to further emphasize China’s claim over that island, in addition to its South China Sea claims. This latest version of the Chinese map and its ten-dash line drew wide criticism from across Asia, for the brashness being demonstrated by China’s government while apparently being unwilling to engage in diplomatic dialogue.

So is this a case of propaganda or is it a matter of satisfying local expectation and perception? The reality is that this is a case of both. The fact that the nine-dash (or now ten-dash) line is unsupported makes it something of a historical fiction that is perpetuated via cartography. And yes, that same historical fiction is an integral part of China’s perception of its own territorial and cultural destiny.

In this specific example, regardless of the broader question of the intent of this position, it must be understood that the government of China maintains very strict policies pertaining to the depiction of its territorial sovereignty. The Chinese government has been known to take swift action against companies and organizations that neglect its local expectations and fail to represent its perceived territories as wholly Chinese. This includes the South China Sea and Taiwan but also several other geopolitical issues such as the disputed Senkaku Islands, the Aksai Chin portion of Jammu and Kashmir, and most of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.

The reality of global-facing content and the inherent information geopolitics of maps is that they often serve as a tangible surrogate for the intangible extent of geographic territory. A government will not very likely threaten military action because of a company’s cartographic error, but it’s certain that they will be ready to defend the perception of their sovereignty in front of a global audience.

The resulting challenge for content managers and companies that wish to be locally compliant is being able to discern for themselves to what extent they’ll be enabling potential misinformation. Most corporate entities tend to ignore this issue by simply providing what the local information consumer really wants: the world depicted as they expect it to be. Whether that expectation is curated by their local government, by cultural tradition or by some other force becomes rather irrelevant, as the company’s mission is to deliver content to an information-hungry world.

Thus we’ve seen the notion of blatant propaganda slowly evolve into something of an acceptable means to manage the distribution of global content to diverse cultures with diverse expectations. This is important as we aim to be respectful of local differences, but it’s also critical that we remain very conscious of the messages we’re allowing to be conveyed via our companies and content channels. Without a certain level of discernment and curation, the boundary between truth and fiction becomes severely blurred.