March 31, 2010

Political Cyberscapes I: Democracies and Dictators

Over the last few weeks, we've posted a series of maps that illustrate the representation of religious groups online via the number of references in Google placemarks. In an attempt to achieve the hat trick of talking about things best avoided at the dinner table, we've turned our (short term) attention to mapping a series of references to a range of political terms. (See here and here for some of the analysis on religion and sex).

The first in a two-part series, these maps show references to the terms "democracy" and "dictatorship" in Google Maps placemarks. In a likely vain attempt to forestall complaints, we would like to note that we fully understand that the reality of governance is never so clear as an either/or choice between democratic or dictatorial rule. In fact, as the findings of these maps show, the complexities of state politics are never as clear as they may seem, especially in this context.

Each of the maps below show the number of placemarks mentioning the keywords "democracy" or "dictatorship", aggregated at the country level across the world. These amounts were then normalized by the total number of placemarks per country, and classified based on the geometrical interval method, which is appropriate given the lack of a normal distribution in these datasets.

References to "Democracy"

The United States and United Kingdom have the highest relative levels of references in placemarks to "democracy". More interesting, however, is that both Iran and Iraq have relatively high numbers of references to "democracy" as well. While both nations maintain elements of democracy (e.g., elections), they are not widely considered to be fully democratic states. Meanwhile other countries such as India with long established democracies have relatively fewer references.

In the case of Iraq, the prevalence of democracy in placemarks is likely associated with the attempts to establish a functioning democratic government as part of the ongoing occupation. Similarly in the case of Iran, the placemarks mentioning democracy are almost certainly related to the mass protests against the Iranian regime following last summer's contested elections. These protests were accompanied by a mass online demonstration using a variety of social media applications and this activity appears to be reflected within Google Maps.

This same anomaly can also be found in the countries with highest concentrations of references to "dictatorship" in the map below, in which many non-authoritarian countries are relatively prominent, while some authoritarian states are not. For example, the U.S. shows up as having a high number of placemarks referencing dictatorship. Again, our method captures interest in a particular keyword within places' cyberscapes and imperfectly reflects offline activities. In this particular instance, the U.S.'s high showing is likely tied to the fact that the U.S. has many placemarks and that the search term was in English.

References to "Dictatorship"

Nevertheless, many current dictatorships - Myanmar (Burma) in southeast Asia, Eritrea in east Africa and Cuba - display some of the highest relative concentrations of the keyword dictatorship. Other countries whose history included authoritarian leaders -- Chile, Argentina, Paraguay and Nicaragua -- remain prominent in terms of their online representations. In fact, in contrast to georeferenced mentions of democracy (which seem more oriented towards the potential for democracy in the future) references to the keyword "dictatorship" appear to have more of a historical element to them.

So while there remain some distortions in how the political systems of the world are represented in Google Maps, these maps reinforce our findings that the online representations of place are strongly tied to the physical world. Moreover, in the case of these political cyberscapes, they introduce a new level of temporality - the historical and futuristic references that have previously been absent (or, at the very least, less noticeable) - to our analysis of these online constructions of offline space.

And one of the most fundamental question -- Who gets to make these political definitions? – remains.


  1. This is a good one. Hope it will make some of us politically aware.

  2. have you considered the fact that the labeled might not be the labelers? that would raise the question of who did create these distributions, and whose perspective you are really talking about...

  3. You raise some excellent points, arvind. We are fully aware of the fact that just because there is information geotagged to a particular place on the earth doesn't mean that it was put there by someone who lives there.

    Your question about whose perspective we are showing is exactly what we are trying to get at when we stress that these maps are representations - as are all maps - and do not depict some unmediated reality that we are attempting to impress upon the readers of our blog. Georeferenced web information is largely the domain of a pretty narrow slice of the world's population, despite it having a significant role to play in how we come to understand places (where we live, where we vacation, etc.). This is, however, all the more reason to understand how these representations are both a product and producer of information inequality.

  4. Very interesting. Thanks for posting! :D

  5. Wow read a lot of things i didnt know before. Great post.

  6. @taylor: agreed... it would be awesome to see a map that compared, say news sources from a particular place with geotagged information about a particular place.

    or even an interactive map that compares new information from a particular country with geotagged information about the rest of the world. sort of like 'how X sees the world'..


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