Conflict Map Making

 An exploration into an emerging phenomenon

The recent conflicts throughout Ukraine and Syria have epitomised a landmark shift in the way that we receive information from regions of ongoing conflict. Social channels of communication are a growing repository of communication between those who inhabit these spaces.

Map making is a visual representation of the outcome of the connections, conversations and content life-cycles that take place online. The number of information sources that exist make it possible for highly detailed maps to be created, as they have a wealth of content at their fingertips.

Key elements of the cartographic process:

  • Cognitive Surplus is a concept introduced by Clay Shirky (2010) in which individuals now collectively harness their free time for the creation of knowledge, rather than passive consumption. The Internet itself is driven by this surplus of cognitive ability; sites like YouTube, Twitter, & Reddit would be empty shells without it.
  • Initial Content Production is a direct result of this cognitive surplus. Videos, images and reports of rocket strikes, troop movements, and various engagements create the content base on which maps are made. This initial creation of content is a direct result of the uploader’s cognitive surplus time.
  • The Aggregation Phase occurs on the platforms through which the initial content is shared. Aggregation is an inherent part of the nature of a hosting platform. For example, content on Twitter is aggregated (stacked) and categorised through the use of the hashtag (#) function.
  • Content Curation and aggregation are inextricably linked. Curation takes place when a mediator collates a variety of different sources and brings them together in one place, albeit a feed, compilation video, or in this case, a map. It is through the process of curation that incorrect or unverified information can be ‘buried’ at the bottom of the stack. Cognitive surplus is a key component of this process. Actions such as Reddit karma, liking or disliking a youtube video, or favouriting and retweeting a post on Twitter are all examples of ways in which users can curate content.

The Ukrainian conflict that took place throughout 2014 provided some of the first examples of conflict map creation. Twitter user @WarfareStudies outlines the basic process that goes behind the creation of each map in a series of tweets.

The curation process continues even after the map is shared back into the network. In this respect, it is a new piece of information in its own right and is thus subject to the same production/aggregation/curation lifecycle through which it was created.

Feedback is an essential tool in verifying the content provided in these maps. The following two screenshots show the work of Peto Lucem, a prolific cartographer who has been covering the war in Syria since late 2013. These maps are of particular significance due to the engagement they receive once they have been posted.

(https://twitter.com/PetoLucem/status/701083407460265984)

This map depicts a situation in which the SAA (Syrian Arab Army) has enclosed a pocket of ISIS resistance in Aleppo, Northern Syria. According to Peto Lucem’s sources, there are approximately 800 ISIS fighters trapped in this small area. The comments on this particular map range from disputing the number of trapped fighters to a discussion of future tactics. The whole process that takes place within the comment sections of posts such as this is a constant cycle of questioning, evaluating fact checking. The third screenshot shows a series of comments on a comment, as users engage with a particularly provocative assessment of the information sourced in the map. These discussions are transformative across platforms, i.e, they are not strictly limited to the platform in which the original map was posted. Reddit is full of threads that openly debate both the quality of the content posted and future predictions.

In this paradigm, cartography is a process that involves drawing on a range of disparate sources in order to create an accurate depiction of the vents taking place on the ground. Due to the high refresh rate of information, this process would not be possible for one mediator alone. Maps are an accumulation of high density information filtering, where information is filtered by those in the network who donate their own cognitive surplus to help do so.

This will be the first of a series of posts that look to explore this issue. The next post will be a hands on exercise in which I will unpack the creation-aggregation-curation process.

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