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Thursday, 03 December 2020

Action needed on a distorted map of Egypt

Do Internet search engines manipulate members of the public, steering them to see content differently? The map of Egypt is a case in point

Azza Radwan Sedky , Friday 20 Nov 2020
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Views: 2019

In this day and age, we need never be short of finding the information we are looking for. Our queries are answered immediately by the one and only search engine, Google.  As we count on it to answer all our questions, it is no exaggeration to say that Google has infiltrated our lives. Many other search engines exist, but Google is by far the most ubiquitous. 

Undeniably Google, whether innocently or deliberately, plays a role in what we accept as a given, for isn’t Google always right? First, there is the innocent aspect: Google responds to a query by forwarding to the searcher the highest-ranking responses, and since searchers rarely go beyond the first few of these, they often become the only valid and most acceptable answers. The choices provided by Google thus can become overridingly right. 

But though these “choices” may be innocent in appearance, they can change purchasing, voting, perception and cognitive preferences. They nudge the searcher towards compliance one way or another and alter people’s assumptions. This can be extremely dangerous, as they may intentionally mislead.

Then there is the non-innocent aspect: according to the American business news website Business Insider, Google “manipulates search results to hide controversial subjects and favour big business.” An article on the Albert Institute of Wellesley College’s webpage in the US states that “Google can present us with information that is relevant – in the sense that the result is related in some way to what was searched for – but not necessarily accurate.” 

The map of Egypt is a case in point. I am no cartographer or map wizard. I’m also neither a politician nor a historian, but I am a seeker after truth, and I know what I grew up with as far as the map of Egypt is concerned.

It goes without saying that the map of Egypt is ingrained in the minds of all Egyptians, as seen in textbooks, in maps circulated around the world, in the media, and in every published source of information. It looks very clear: an almost-straight vertical line from the Mediterranean Sea heading southwards intersecting a perfectly horizontal line, creating a 90-degree angle. This horizontal line reaches the Red Sea at the east end. No queries existed about this in the past: these were Egypt’s borders as far as its western and southern borders were concerned. 

However, today maps of Egypt available on websites and via search engines exhibit a dubious triangle on the southeast border. This zigzag shape crisscrossing Egypt into Sudan and Sudan into Egypt called the “Halayeb Triangle” is a “disputed area,” some such maps allege. “Area claimed by Sudan and Egypt, administered by Sudan,” they say, while other maps give Sudan ownership of the same area. You can’t find the old map, well known by all of us, anywhere on the Internet. 

Suddenly, out of nowhere, these new maps are circulating through the various Internet search engines. Are these new maps bona fide and attested? Have the borders between Egypt and Sudan always been “disputed”? And what about the map that the Egyptians acknowledged and accepted all along? 

Bear in mind that these websites are some of the best-known and most-official for maps, and people from all around the world take the data on these sites as a given and resort to them for correct information.

Yet, the unofficial but newer maps seem intentional in their pursuit of a new borderline between Egypt and Sudan. And once such maps become the dominant ones, the truth could then get lost in oblivion.

Unless the Egyptian authorities pursue this matter further and call on these search engines, Google in particular, to adhere to the original Egyptian map, the border between Egypt and Sudan could remain a thorn in the side of future generations. The onus falls on this generation to clarify the issue, and it will be this generation’s shortcomings that cause such a dispute to continue. 

If it is indeed an innocent and unplanned matter that these incorrect maps are the ones that appear first on Internet searches, then Egypt must make sure that Google has the right map, one which must rank much higher than the erroneous map on the search lineup. Egypt will then be counteracting this false information in the same “innocent” fashion. 

If it is not so innocent, then Google must be contacted and asked to remove the maps. Google does respond to viewers’ demands. Many governments ask Google to censor certain information or remove certain content, and many a time Google complies. 

“Governments ask us to remove or review content for many reasons. Some requests allege defamation, while others claim that content violates local laws prohibiting hate speech or adult content… Our team assign each request a category, such as hate speech, obscenity and defamation,” it says. 

“Often times, government requests target political content and government criticism. Governments cite defamation, privacy, and even copyright laws in their attempts to remove political speech from our services. Our teams evaluate each request and review the content in context in order to determine whether or not content should be removed due to violation of local law or our content policies.”

As you can see from the above, removing content from Google is doable. Hence, Egypt must fight tooth and nail to have these false maps withdrawn. The Egyptian authorities must end this unresolved and conflict-ridden situation by asking Google and other search engines to remove these maps and replace them with the original ones. 

It may seem as though this is not a pressing issue amidst today’s demands on politicians, but it is nevertheless one that changes Egypt’s borders, which is a dangerous outcome. 


The writer is the author of Cairo Rewind on the First Two Years of Egypt’s Revolution, 2011-2013.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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