Can blogs wag the dog?

An artist named Guillermo «Habacuc» Vargas took a sick dog off the streets of Managua, Nicaragua, last August, chained it to a wall in a local gallery and wrote, in dog biscuits on the wall above the starving dog: «You are what you read.» He gave strict orders that the dog should not be fed or given water. A day after the public showing, the dog, named Natividad, died. The artist also burned marijuana and crack-cocaine in an incense burner and played the Sandinista anthem backward. People flocked to the expo, yet no one tried to help the dog. Allegedly. Responding to criticism from animal rights groups, Vargas apparently said that the purpose of his exhibition was to expose the hypocrisy of people who walk past stray dogs every day in the street and do nothing to help them. Another «source» says that Vargas was paying a tribute to a thief named Natividad Canda, who was killed by a pair of Rottweilers while trying to break into a Costa Rican property. «The people sympathized with him only after he was dead,» Vargas allegedly said. A petition is making the rounds of the worldwide Web right now requesting that Vargas’s participation in the Biennial of Central American Art in Honduras 2008 be banned – there are over 430,000 signatures. Hundreds of blogs, from all over Latin America, across Europe and all the way to Japan are condemning the artist. The debate on ethics in art, on censorship, on animal rights is ablaze. Yet, there is something odd about this whole story. There are thousands of reports out there on the Internet, there is a video on YouTube of the poor dog, tied up and obviously ill. There are photographs of people milling around in a room, with the dog curled up in the corner. The evidence appears to be there, but confirming its veracity has proved a chore. None of the blog reports appear to be from eyewitnesses. One blogger apparently wrote to the gallery director, who denied that the dog was being starved on purpose. But the gallery’s website has no statements regarding the case, despite the public outcry. In fact, the name Guillermo «Habacuc» Vargas doesn’t even turn up in a search of the site. El Pais and Der Spiegel ran stories on the exhibition in the fall last year, but these also were based on the petition rather than on original sources. That an art biennial is being held in Honduras this year cannot be confirmed. The Costa Rican Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Culture has nothing concerning this story on its website. The Costa Rican Consulate in Athens was unavailable for comment. So the question is: What in this entire story is true? Another blog wildfire these days comes from a report in the satirical UK-based Daily Squib: «Ku Klux Klan endorses Obama» (February 7, 2008). KKK Imperial Wizard Ronald Edwards, the daily Squib «reports,» said: «Anything is better than Hillary Clinton.» Ludicrous as it may sound, this farce has made the news. It has become a subject for debate on American radio shows and has enraged a considerable amount of bloggers. Greece has also experienced its own blog crisis this week with authorities going after the contributors to the mostly political blog spot press-gr. The government has not sat idly by after it was revealed that more than 100 people, including ministers, businessmen and journalists have sued the writers for defamation. The Justice Ministry announced that it would soon enhance the powers of the police and prosecutors when they investigate crimes that are carried out online. One of the contributors to the press-gr blog, journalist Andreas Kapsambelis, insists that he was only expressing his opinion on political, social and diplomatic issues. Internet users can be forgiven for wondering who they can trust. So, are we what we read? Truth, lies and half-truths can become blurred on the Internet, but when a story is incendiary enough, it can have an impact. Quantity often matters in that the more reports we see about an incident, the more inclined we are to believe it, ignoring the reliability of the source. With people increasingly turning to the Internet for their daily news and information, with stories making their way around the globe in a matter of days and with confirmation often difficult or even impossible to obtain, what are we looking at? In the 1990s radio was used in Rwanda to lay the groundwork for genocide and ethnic division. How long will it be before the Internet is used in the same way? How hard, for example, would be for the Kosovo crisis to be inflamed by false or malicious claims appearing on the Internet? The question is, can blogs wag the dog? And should blog reports, like wildfires, be contained or allowed to run their course and burn out? YOUR COMMENTS Readers are invited to e-mail their comments and feedback to us at [email protected].

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