On Friday, I read an article about how Vladimir Putin might invade Belarus if the protesters there don't stop protesting living in a dictatorship. This made me wonder how long the border is between Belarus and Russia. So I opened up Google Maps and typed in "Belarus." Here is what I saw:
The answer to my question is that Belarus's entire eastern border is shared with Russia. Another successful internet search.
But just as I was about to close the window, I saw the default photo of Belarus Google Maps has chosen to display. It is of a beautiful ocean scene with rising cliffs surrounding a cove. How lovely, I thought to myself. Among the many things I didn't know about Belarus, that it had such a beautiful coast was certainly one of them. Here is that photo:
I looked back to the map to see what body of water Belarus borders. As you can see, it doesn't.
After a reverse Google Image search, it's clear the photo is not of Belarus, but of Porthcurno Beach in Cornwall, England.
How did it come to be that Belarus's main Google Maps photo was of a cove in England, I wondered? The user who submitted the photo and tagged it as Belarus, Sourya Chatterjee, has uploaded a whopping 20,538 photos to Google Maps. Since November 2015, Google Maps has offered a rewards program for "Local Guides" who contribute reviews, answer questions, and upload photos about points of interest. Since then, Chatterjee has been very busy, uploading an average of 11 photos per day.
Then again, I have no idea when Chatterjee started uploading photos, since according to his Google Maps profile, he hasn't uploaded any, nor has he received any credit or rewards for the 20,000-plus photos he uploaded.
By scrolling through photos of Belarus on Google Maps, I found at least one other picture Sourya uploaded. I bet some of you will get this without doing a reverse image search. It's of the London Eye. In London (you can see in the bottom-left the geotag is for a random square in Grodno, Belarus, which I can assure you does not have a London Eye replica).
This photo of the London Eye tagged to Grodno, despite being the third highest-ranking photo of Belarus on Google Maps, is nowhere to be found in the top hundred or so photos of Grodno.
On Friday, I reached out to Google to ask what is going on here. I told them about the main photo of the cliffs in Cornwall, but not about the London Eye photo. As of this writing, the cliffs no longer show up as the main photo for Belarus. Now, it is the Mir Castle in Minsk (where you will also find a photo of one of the cutest cats you have ever seen). But the London Eye photo is still there. It is now the second highest recommended photo for Belarus by Google Maps.
I don't have any answers for you about all this. Is Sourya Chatterjee a real person who made a bot to scam Google Maps rewards, they caught on, and wiped his status but kept the photos? What does all this say about Google Maps' algorithm that selects primary photos? Does this reflect anything important about how Google specifically and tech giants in general regard the nature of information and truth? Or is this just a weird thing that I happened to stumble upon because I am a geographic ignoramus who didn't know where Belarus was? Only time—and, perhaps, Google's communications department, should they get back to me with a statement—can tell.