Last Thursday, a satirical, fake-news website became real news for a brief time.
The Onion, known for its tongue and cheek comedy, became much more wildly known when it began posting “breaking” news to its Twitter feed. The first post read:
“BREAKING: Witnesses reporting screams and gunfire heard inside the capital.” And then, for 10 minutes, there was nothing else said.
Most people were confused. Many of those who subscribed to The Onion’s feed thought they were another hacking victim. Several of those who were not as familiar with them took it more literally, and began worrying about a terrorist attack.
After that, the tweets alternately clarified and confused- while one seemed completely unlikely- “BREAKING: Capitol building being evacuated. 12 children held hostage by group of armed congressmen.”- others muddied the feed again with “Two chaperones are also being held, one of whom is said to be pregnant.” and “Arlington Gun shop confirms Rep. @EricCantor bought 6 semi-automatic handguns, 3 rifles & 600 clips of ammo last month.” They even began the Twitter hash tag “#CongressHostage” so everyone could follow along.
There seems to be as much bewilderment as there was smiling over the stint. There also was a backlash of anger. Capitol police had a part of their force investigating the false information after they had just arrested a man the day before for a plot to detonate explosives in the Pentagon and the Capitol.
I have never followed The Onion, and don’t usually find their particular brand of humor my style. But after a concerned military wife asked the question that so many others were asking- “Was the account hacked?”- I found the story and was shocked.
My personal opinion was that the ‘joke’ went much too far. Joking is part of the freedom of speech we are so wonderfully allowed- the same reason I am allowed to write this. But its gift should not be taken lightly. A joke about Osama Bin Laden on late night TV may be in poor taste, but not necessarily dangerous.
However, when Capitol police are called away from their regular duties to investigate a false report (something that every day people, notably including Casey Anthony, would be heavily fined for at best), I have a problem with it. And creating a hash tag to gain interest from people who normally have never heard of The Onion is misleading at best.
The Onion made a point to clarify that it was not hacked- and nothing more. There was no apology. I wondered what military families across the United States felt about that. Were they upset at a joke over something of national importance, and the implications it could have in their personal lives? Or did they think it was a funny joke, comparing it as some did to “The War of The Worlds” radio broadcast.
How did you react to the story?