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Bulletin: Fall 2011, Volume 17, Number 1

Satire Gone Too Far?: The Onion Causes a Stir

American satirical newspaper The Onion sparked a mini-crisis in Washington on Sept. 29, 2011 when it posted on its Twitter page that members of Congress had taken visiting schoolchildren hostage, promoting a similar story on its website and in its print edition.

“BREAKING: Witnesses reporting screams and gunfire heard inside Capitol building,” the first tweet said. Another said a “group of armed congressmen” was holding 12 children hostage, and another said a “police helicopter [was] just ordered to pull back after Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) tried to take it down with a shotgun.”

But not everybody got the joke. Tweets about violence in the capitol building spread quickly before some people realized they were false. Some members of the media and others on Twitter expressed outrage at what they characterized as an irresponsible decision by The Onion to publish these types of statements. The U.S. Capitol Police, a federal police force in charge of protecting Congress, investigated the reporting, according to a press release it sent out the same day the tweets were posted. “It has come to our attention that recent twitter feeds are reporting false information concerning current conditions at the U.S. Capitol,” the release said. “Conditions at the U.S. Capitol are currently normal.” The Onion, however, did not back down from its decision to publish the tweets. “This is satire. That’s how it works,” an Onion representative told The Washington Post for a September 29 blog post titled “The Onion’s tweets about Capitol gunfire prompt panic, mockery.” Other tweets from The Onion about Congress being taken hostage further fed into the newspaper’s satire. “Police helicopter just ordered to pull back after Rep. Trent Franks tried to take it down with a shotgun,” one tweet said. Another tweet reported that “Arlington gun shop confirms Rep. [Eric Cantor] bought 6 semi-automatic handguns, 3 rifles & 600 clips of ammo last month.” Another said that “two chaperons are also being held, one of whom is said to be pregnant.”

The tweets were promoting a story on The Onion’s website, “Congress Takes Group of Schoolchildren Hostage.” “WASHINGTON – Brandishing shotguns and semiautomatic pistols, members of the 112th U.S. Congress took a class of visiting schoolchildren hostage today, barricading themselves inside the Capitol rotunda and demanding $12 trillion dollars in cash,” the story said. “House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), who has emerged as a spokesman for the bipartisan group, informed FBI negotiators this morning that the ransom was to be placed in stainless-steel suitcases and left on the Capitol steps by 4 p.m. sharp. If their demands are not met in full, the 11-term representative announced, ‘all the kids will die.’ ” The website also featured a fake photograph of Boehner holding a gun to the head of a small girl, and a fake news video. “I know Speaker Boehner personally,” President Obama said in the story, “and I know that he and his colleagues will not hesitate for a second to kill these poor children if they don’t get their way.” (The story is available at http://www.theonion.com/articles/congress-takes-group-of-schoolchildren-hostage,26207/.)

The reaction was swift. Time Magazine’s Megan Friedman questioned in a September 29 blog post whether The Onion went “too far with its #CongressHostage satire.” Many Twitter users also expressed distaste for the satirical tweets. One Twitter user, “ChrisWitschy,” called the Congress Hostage hoax “completely inappropriate.” For a short time after The Onion’s tweets, some wondered whether the site’s Twitter feed had been hacked. “Did idiot hackers hack [The Onion] thinking it was a real news org?” wondered user “Adrianchen.”

For many, the incident recalled the famous 1938 Orson Welles radio drama “War of the Worlds,” when a series of fake news bulletins broadcast via radio convinced some Americans that Earth was under attack from Martians. Freelance journalist and activist Josh Wolf tweeted that the fake hostage crisis “reminds me of how Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds sparked confusion [and] controversy.”

An Oct. 29, 2011 BBC online report, “The Halloween Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic,” (available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-15470903), reflected on the headlines across the United States printed in response to the terror that Welles’ show had supposedly created. The New York Times headline read “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact,” the BBC said. The Chicago Herald and Examiner told how “Radio Fake Scares Nation.” The San Francisco Chronicle reported that “US Terrorized by Radio’s ‘Men From Mars.’ ”

However, the BBC article also quoted Hadley Cantril, a Princeton University psychologist who researched the notorious broadcast, who said that the size of the panic that was actually created has been exaggerated in modern history. He said that although about six million people listened to the original broadcast, perhaps 1.2 million listeners were “frightened” or “disturbed” by what they heard.

Some Twitter users suggested that the reaction to The Onion’s tweets was similarly overstated. Twitter user “scott_tobias,” mocked the reaction to the tweets. “Thinking the real satire [behind The Onion’s tweets] is the response to it,” he wrote. “Post 9/11, we’ve become a nation of feral cats.”         

Another post about the incident on The Guardian’s News Blog written by Matt Wells  suggested that The Onion ran into problems in this situation when it failed to realize using Twitter strips away context. “With its latest stunt, maybe the Onion took the conventions of social media too literally.” “Even by the Onion’s standards, this was pushing at the boundaries. Only yesterday, a man was arrested for plotting to fly remote-controlled aircraft stuffed with plastic explosives at the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon … Making realistic-sounding jokes about potential terrorist situations is always going to be problematic in the United States.”

– Emily Johns
Silha Research Assistant