Saturday, September 20, 2014

Maps as Propaganda

Propaganda Maps: Propaganda Maps Are Designed to Persuade
By Juliet Jacobs

All maps are designed with a purpose; whether to aid in navigation, accompany a news article, or display data. Some maps, however, are designed to be particularly persuasive. Like other forms of propaganda, cartographic propaganda attempts to mobilize viewers for a purpose. Geopolitical maps are the most explicit examples of cartographic propaganda, and throughout history have been utilized to garner support for various causes.

Propaganda Maps in Global Conflicts

Maps can magnify feelings of fear and threat by strategic cartographic design; in many global conflicts, maps were made with this purpose. In 1942, U.S. filmmaker Frank Capra released Prelude to War, one of the most noted examples of war propaganda. In the film, which was funded by the U.S. Army, Capra used maps to highlight the challenge of the war. The maps of Axis countries Germany, Italy, and Japan were transformed into symbols that represented menace and threat.

This map from the film depicts the Axis powers' plan to conquer the world.
In maps such as the aforementioned propaganda map, authors express specific feelings on a topic, creating maps that are meant not just to describe information, but also to interpret it. These maps are often not made with the same scientific or design procedures as other maps; labels, precise outlines of bodies of land and water, legends, and other formal map elements may be disregarded in favor of a map that "speaks for itself." As the above image shows, these maps favor graphic symbols that are embedded with meaning. Propaganda maps gained momentum under Nazism and Fascism, as well. There are many examples of Nazi propaganda maps that were intended to glorify Germany, justify territorial expansion, and decrease support for the U.S., France, and Britain (see examples of Nazi propaganda maps at the German Propaganda Archive).

During the Cold War, maps were produced in order to magnify the threat of the Soviet Union and communism. A recurrent trait in propaganda maps is the ability to portray certain regions as big and menacing, and other regions as small and threatened. Many Cold War maps enhanced the size of the Soviet Union, which magnified the threat of communism's influence. This occurred in a map titled Communist Contagion, which was published in a 1946 edition of Time Magazine. By coloring the Soviet Union in bright red, the map further enhanced the message that communism was spreading like a disease. Mapmakers utilized misleading map projections to their advantage in the Cold War as well. The Mercator Projection, which distorts land areas, exaggerated the size of the Soviet Union. (This map projection website shows different projections and their effect on the portrayal of the USSR and its allies).

Today, we are not as likely to find as many examples of overt propaganda maps. However, there are still many ways that maps can mislead or promote an agenda. This is the case in maps that display data, such as population, ethnicity, food, or crime statistics. Maps that distort data can be particularly misleading; this is most obvious when maps show raw data as opposed to normalized data. For example, a choropleth map may show the raw numbers of crimes by U.S. state. On first view, this seems to accurately tell us which states are the most dangerous in the country. However, it is misleading because it does not account for population size. In this type of map, a state with a high population will inevitably have more crime than a state with a small population. Therefore, it does not actually tell us which states are most crime-ridden; to do this, a map must normalize its data, or portray the data in term of rates by a particular map unit. A map that shows us crime per population unit (for example, number of crimes per 50,000 people) is a much more instructive map, and tells a completely different story. (See maps depicting raw crime numbers versus crime rates).

The maps on this site show how political maps can mislead today. One map shows the results of the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election, with blue or red indicating if a state voted majority for the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, or the Republican candidate, John McCain.

From this map there appears to be more red then blue, indicating that the popular vote went Republican. However, the Democrats decidedly won the popular vote and the election, because the population sizes of the blue states are much higher than those of the red states. To correct for this data issue, Mark Newman at the University of Michigan created a Cartogram; a map that scales the state size to its population size. While not preserving the actual size of each state, the map shows a more accurate blue-red ratio, and better portrays the 2008 election results.

Propaganda maps have been prevalent in the 20th century in global conflicts when one side wants to mobilize support for its cause. It is not only in conflicts that political bodies utilize persuasive mapmaking however; there are many other situations in which it benefits a country to portray another country or region in a particular light. For example, it has benefited colonial powers to use maps to legitimize territorial conquest and social/economic imperialism. Maps are also powerful tools to garner nationalism in one's own country by graphically portraying a country's values and ideals. Ultimately, these examples tell us that maps are not neutral images; they can be dynamic and persuasive, used for political gain.


Black, J. (2008). Where to Draw the Line. History Today, 58(11), 50-55.
Boria, E. (2008). Geopolitical Maps: A Sketch History of a Neglected Trend in Cartography. Geopolitics, 13(2), 278-308.

Monmonier, Mark. (1991). How to Lie with Maps. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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