Alistair Fairweather

Bear necessities

2010-02-12 08:29

Do the organisers of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver support paedophilia? According to an image in a Polish newspaper report, they certainly seem to.

It all started quite innocently with Gazeta Olsztynska, a major daily paper, running a general interest piece on the games. They needed a picture of the five cutesy mascots to spice up their page, and must have just grabbed one off Google images that fitted their layout well.

The problem is there aren’t five mascots, there are four. That rascal on the far right is an imposter named Pedobear. He was inserted into the image by a blogger as a cheeky comment on the visual style of the mascots.

Pedobear was dreamed up by the denizens of 4chan, a massively popular online forum notorious for its distasteful images and anarchic pranks. 4channers use images of the bear to tease anyone they feel is expressing an unhealthy interest in children.

But as is often the case with 4chan’s creations, Pedobear has now taken on a life of his own and broken out into the general internet as a trend or “meme”. Another more famous example of this phenomenon in action is the LOLcats meme which juxtaposes amusing pictures of cats with absurd captions – normally written in pidgin English.

You could see this as a sad day for journalism – a sign of the falling standards and sloppy fact-checking that the old guard are so fond of complaining about.

In reality a lack of resources is a more likely culprit. The staff at most daily papers are stretched wafer thin as they struggle to keep costs down. The page in question was probably put together in a matter of hours by junior staff with several other deadlines. Yes, they should have shown more respect for copyright, but the mascots are a promotional device and are arguably fair game.

But there’s a bigger issue under the skin here. It’s proof that the internet is a more fertile and powerful generator of meaning – even if that meaning is “incorrect” – than most daily papers can ever hope to be.

The internet magnifies mistakes and misconceptions just as readily as it spreads the truth. We tend to trust Google implicitly. Whatever ranks highly in their results has an immediate aura of authenticity.

Case in point: if you search for images of “Vancouver 2010 mascots” now the Pedobear image has moved from the bottom of the page to the second row. And the Poles weren’t the only ones to be caught out. A Dutch TV guide also published the picture.

There has been a good deal of sniggering and tut-tutting in the press at Gazeta Olsztynska’s misfortune. But while this is an amusing blunder, the reaction by other daily papers smacks of a desperate schadenfreude, like the first-class passengers on a sinking ship chuckling at the third-class folk getting all wet on the decks below them.

Follow Alistair on twitter: @afairweather

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