Why satellite images can also be part of propaganda

Created: 4/1/2022,

Of: Catherine Reikowski

The satellite image shows burning buildings in Mariupol. © Uncredited/Maxar Technologies/AP/dpa

Satellite Images From Mariupol, Kyiv Of Russian Troop Movements On Ukraine’s Border: How Objective Are They Really?

New York – The escalating Ukraine conflict has been accompanied by aerial images since the beginning of the Russian attack: If you look closely, you will almost always discover the same author at the edge of the images – Maxar Pictures. The liberal US political magazine New Republic warns now: The pictures show some of the same characteristics that would also characterize propaganda.

At first glance, a picture taken from the air appears to be absolutely objective: nothing can escape the camera and the perspective seems clear – no photographer zooming in on a section or deliberately not showing anything else. But is it really like that?

War in Ukraine: Maxar works closely with the US government – and is not neutral

In order to be able to offer the satellite images in this quality, the Maxar company uses, according to information from New Republic highly specialized technology. These include artificial intelligence and machine learning, 3D imaging technologies and satellite imaging technologies, all designed to meet the needs of the US government and its allies. According to the company, 90 percent of US defense knowledge in this area comes from Maxar.

The US Department of Defense’s National Intelligence Bureau pays hundreds of millions of dollars a year to Maxar and is its top customer. And which pictures are taken at what time is often dependent on the customer order at Maxar. “Once taken, the images are archived and anyone can buy them,” says Laura Kurgan of Columbia University. Both employees and customers would have no insight into whose name the picture they use was taken.

According to retired Navy Admiral James Stavridis, the US military would provide Maxar with information from intelligence agencies before commissioned a picture – so when a picture is taken is anything but random. Many of the images were created out loud NewsRepublic so to troop movements over military opponents of the USA – and few if any over the own troop movements or those of the allies. This means that the images could not be evaluated as neutral.

Ukraine war: satellite images could fuel warlike actions

What the pictures couldn’t do either: depict the situation of the people on site. Regions shown from the air – such as Kyiv as the site of the conflict with Russia – appear on the satellite images as chaos that can only be brought under control militarily. As an example, he cited satellite images of Kabul airport from August 2020. They gave the impression of a military operation – to be solved with weapons and planes – but failed to convey the desperation of the people left on the runways. And this in turn turns the images into one-sided and anything but objective representations.

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Conflicts, wars, military operations: This is exactly where you have to pay attention, says propaganda expert Cory Wimberly, a professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Maxar’s images would often paint a picture of threat scenarios for the United States. Although Maxar spoke out on the website for peace and against the war in Ukraine, he would continue to provide images of the threat from Russia or China.

If someone earns money with pictures from war regions, one can also assume that further conflicts could also be in the interest of the company.

“If the way you make money is based on conflict and war, then you will also seek opportunities to get involved in conflict and war.”

Ukraine: War is declared using satellite imagery

Last but not least, the Ukraine war was often explained in the media with the help of satellite images. US experts argued for a no-fly zone against Putin with reference to images of Russian helicopter fleets.

But that is by no means trivial: “We live in a world of images in the media, but we still cannot understand them well,” said Wimberly. The viewers understand far too little how strongly images determine the focus, the priorities and the values. “The extent to which images really influence us often depends on how much you can disguise that,” he says.

For example, even laypeople can see that a picture shows a military base on which movements are taking place.

“But what exactly is being done there and which units are moving – that requires a lot more specialist knowledge. And only military experts have that.”

The fact that a picture seems easy to understand for laypeople could be a gateway for manipulation: people are quickly ready to form an opinion – without questioning the context of the picture.

Ukraine war: recommendations for handling satellite imagery

Despite all the debate about the US satellite images, the propaganda of the Russian war machine is different. Putin not only had Russia’s history rewritten, he also enacted laws to suppress those who thought differently, and who face severe penalties. Moscow’s version of the truth is being spread by Putin’s chief propagandist, Dmitir Peskov.

NewsRepublic however, also recommends that those who publish or view satellite imagery in the media should consider several points, as Lisa Parks, professor of communications at Santa Barbara University, points out:

  • View before and after pictures
  • Supplement satellite images with photos of the situation on site
  • Name the time of recording and author
  • Find contextual information

“Satellite imagery should never be the end point of a discussion,” Parks said, “it should only ever be a beginning.” You can find all the background information here: The Ukraine war briefly explained. (cat)

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