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'Pedobear' on papal billboards becomes online sensation

Pedobear, an internet symbol used to make fun of people displaying sexual interest in children, found its way to the choir stand in the Floriana Granaries where the Pope will say Mass on Sunday. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

Pedobear, an internet symbol used to make fun of people displaying sexual interest in children, found its way to the choir stand in the Floriana Granaries where the Pope will say Mass on Sunday. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

No one can be sure if the Pope's visit will be a smooth one but one thing is certain: the whole world is watching.

With the Vatican under constant media attention, even local allegations of child abuse by priests have been reported on various international newspapers, including The Economist and The Observer.

But the act of vandalism, where a paedophilic symbol was sprayed on billboards promoting the Pope's visit next weekend, is gaining even more attention on the internet. Pope Benedict XVI was also given a Hitler moustache on some billboards.

Although the graffiti confused the Maltese public, Pedobear, as it is known by avid internet users, has gripped the attention of cyberspace as many people seem to be taking pleasure in sharing the story.

The Times' story about the billboard's vandalism last Saturday has already been viewed by around 300,000 online readers from around the world, many of whom are taking an active part in linking and sharing the story with their friends. A Google search of the words "Pedobear" and "Malta" finds more than 14,000 entries and the character's Wikipedia page has already been updated to include a reference to the graffiti in Malta.

Wikipedia explains that the cartoon character is used in online communities to mock people showing a sexual interest in underage girls.

"Pedobear is one of the most popular memes on non-English image boards, and is gaining recognition across Europe. Although the meme is apparently unknown in Poland, it has been used as a symbol of paedophilia by Maltese graffiti vandals," the site adds.

On Facebook, a fan page was set up for "The guy who spray-painted Pedobear onto the Pope billboards" - which has already been joined by 754 fans.

But perhaps the most attention to the vandalism is being given on online forums and websites where users send each other "viral" web links, such as reddit.com and buzzfeed.com.

On Twitter, where users publish their thoughts in less than 140 characters, there are countless references to the billboards' vandalism, with most people seemingly amused by the incident.

Most of them poked fun and pointed out that the local media had not recognised the internet meme, and referred to the symbol as something that looked like a panda.

And the vandals have struck again, this time with stencil graffiti of Pedobear sprayed on the choir stand next to the Pope's stage on the Floriana granaries, where Mass will be heard on Sunday.

Meanwhile, The Daily Telegraph reported that security around the Pope's visit would be stepped up amid fears of protests.

A Vatican source told the paper there was a real fear protests would be an issue in light of the growing clergy scandal. The newspaper said child abuse victims planned to protest at the airport when the Pope lands on Saturday afternoon.

The police have not yet replied to questions by The Times about whether anyone had applied for a permit to protest or how security was being stepped up.

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