Funny Or Die: Twitter Explodes With Debate Over The Onion Congressional Hostage Satire


Twitter hackings have become so common for news organizations we’ve almost stopped noticing. Earlier this week, USA Today fell victim to elite hacking group the Script Kiddies, who did not much more than ask people to ‘like’ them on Facebook, leading our own Jon Bershad to wonder if “the hackers ever worry that, by hacking everyone’s Twitter account, the novelty will ware off?” This morning, however, the Twittersphere was sent into spin by an out of character tweet from The Onion‘s account.

The tweet in question read, “BREAKING: Witnesses reporting screams and gunfire heard inside Capitol building.”

The Onion, the paper of satirical record, doesn’t really do “breaking news,” nor do they do “real” news. They also have tended to keep their Twitter straight business, posting just headlines and the accompanying links. When the “BREAKING” tweet broke into other’s streams, the internet took notice and began to wonder if the fake news’ twitter had been hacked by someone posting…fake news?

“Did idiot hackers hack the @TheOnion thinking it was a real news org?” asked Gawker’s Adrian Chen. Slate’s Dave Weigel thought maybe it was Anonymous’s doing.

When I called after the first tweet went up, an Onion spokesperson assured me that the tweets were intentional and that I would otherwise just have to stay tuned. They also asked me if I “get” what The Onion does. So yeah, joke was on me.

By that point, the second “BREAKING” tweet had gone out, this time with the more markedly absurdists details typical of The Onion. “BREAKING: Capitol building being evacuated. 12 children held hostage by group of armed congressmen. #CongressHostage,” it read. Twitter seemed to be coming around to the joke, and shortly after, just at the spokesperson hinted they would, The Onion tweeted a link to the now well-hyped story, “Congress Takes Group Of School Children Hostage.” Lots of people who wouldn’t have otherwise clicked the link, and so at least in that sense the stunt was successful.

They’ve since continued the act with a tweet about the hostage taker’s chaperones (one of whom is pregnant!) and another about Congressman Eric Cantor buying 6 semi-automatic handguns.

Twitter is, for the most part, not having it. And neither are the U.S. Capitol Police, who quickly issued a rather serious response:

It has come to our attention that recent twitter feeds are reporting false information concerning current conditions at the U.S. Capitol,” Sgt. Kimberly Schneider said in an e-mail statement. “Conditions at the U.S. Capitol are currently normal. There is no credibility to these stories or the twitter feeds. The U.S. Capitol Police are currently investigating the reporting.

This all comes following the arrest of a man who was planning to build what are essentially explosive-laden toy planes to fly into the Pentagon and Capitol building; and, perhaps more pointedly, after a morning of commenters noting “How Onion!” it is that Al Qaeda has asked Iran’s Ahmadinejad to quit it with the 9/11 conspiracy stuff. Things are kind of funny, and kind of scary, and definitely sensitive.

A few brave souls have defended The Onion calling it “brilliant satire” and criticizing those who found the tweets and story to be offensive as not getting the joke. Of course there is a clear distinction between understanding why a joke is intended to be funny and simply finding it unfunny or even tasteless. Just because The Onion has a tremendous legacy of smart and insightful comedy, doesn’t mean that ever parody will resonate with their audience. Judging by the reaction on Twitter, most found their latest effort to fall short of the comedy mark.

Was the Onion‘s joke too much? Funny as it sounds, the man with the planes was serious enough to merit arrest, and really, taking credit (or blame, depending on whose side you’re on) is an Al Qaeda trademark — it’s not exactly pot meet kettle black, there. The Onion‘s joke wasn’t funny, but it got us, they stopped us, and they made us really think about it. Isn’t that ultimately what satire does? If it was good, we might also all be laughing, but the Onion seems to have proved the point. Will the Onion‘s tweets get us back on our toes? After these past few days, maybe this was a good exercise for all of us.

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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