Onion joke about "screams and gunfire" inside Congress backfires

Image: From the Onion, a photoshopped image of John Boehner holding a child hostage on the steps of Congress. A series of tweets related to this article caused a stir today.

An oddly presented tweet from @theonion this morning which appeared to state that some kind of attack was taking place inside Congress has backfired. The tweet read:

BREAKING: Witnesses reporting screams and gunfire heard inside Capitol building.

...without the hashtags, links to longer comedy pieces, or other indicators of lulz one usually finds in the popular humor publication's Twitter feed. Many took the tweet seriously.

In this case, the troublesome tweet referred to this longer-form piece, unquestionably a piece of humor. Within an hour of that first odd tweet, others appeared which linked to the longer-form joke. And still others followed which may have been of debatable funniness or appropriateness, but were clearly attempts at humor.

But at first, many of the media watchers and journalists in my tweet-stream wondered if the Onion had been hacked. For a good 30 minutes or so, a wide range of sensible people jumped to the conclusion that the first tweet was so not-funny, it had to be the result of a hacking incident. This news site in Ireland and The Washington Post both spoke to the Onion's New York offices just now, and confirmed that they were not hacked. Now, news is coming in that Capitol police are pissed. WUSA-9, a DC television station, tweets:

Capitol police: tweets are reporting false info about conditions at the Capitol; conditions actually normal. Police investigating.

As friends in Mexico noted on Twitter this morning, the initial mis-fired Twitter joke, and reactions to that tweet from observers and authorities, has a very recent parallel in Veracruz, Mexico. Two Twitter users in the narcoviolence-plagued town posted what turned out to be false rumors of gunmen holding children hostage inside schools. The duo responsible for the tweets very nearly ended up in prison for 30 years, and the state of Veracruz passed a law criminalizing any social media activity that disrupts public order.

Similar laws exist elsewhere around the world, and a recent incident in the UK also led to serious repercussions for the Twitter user in question.

Andy Carvin points to a way to scan real-time reactions people are having on Twitter to a given phrase. A sort of emotional thermometer, if you will. At the time of this blog post, most people tweeting about it seemed to think that initial Onion tweet was kind of dumb.

Humor online is a tricky thing, as any misunderstood internet commenter can tell you. Part of what makes comedy work are subtle cues and indicators of "play," that we're in on this humor thing together. When the medium for that exchange is something as minimal as Twitter (you've got 140 characters, and that's all), strip those subtle cues out and—well, stuff like this happens.


  1. “without the hashtags, links to longer parody pieces, or other indicators
    of humor one usually finds in the humor publication’s Twitter feed.”

    Except for, you know, the phrase “12 children held hostage by group of armed congressmen.”

    1. Actually, I pasted the wrong tweet in my first draft of this blog post, my mistake. The one people freaked out over read: “BREAKING: Witnesses reporting screams and gunfire heard inside Capitol building.” That’s it. No  “12 children held hostage by group of armed congressmen.” or anything else that indicated it was a joke. I’m not saying they’re not entitled to do that, just noting that it’s not silly at all that people reacted badly to a tweet that read, in entirety: “BREAKING: Witnesses reporting screams and gunfire heard inside Capitol building.”

      1. The reaction to a tweet *when taken out of any context whatsoever* is not silly, but when you are actually examining the source and the subsequent tweets, the people hysterical about it are definitely silly.

        This is why zero tolerance laws are the bane of any rational society. Context is everything in a world of interpretation.

        1. Are people hysterical about it now? I guess I haven’t turned on CNN yet.

          The reaction to that first tweet was totally understandable. But yeah, it became clear in less than an hour that it was just a weird way to start a series of tweet jokes.

          1. The Capitol police “investigating” it? Yes, that’s hysterical in my book. If the “investigation” takes more than 5 minutes of browsing the website, they are overreacting.

          2. Maybe they should spend their time and taxpayer money “investigating” corruption, or the use of congressional pages as sex toys, or anything else, instead of having a hissy fit over very obvious satire. A satire that was obvious within less than one minute, I might add.

          3. In order to see subsequent tweets, you had to point your mouse at “atTheOnion” and click once. That’s it. Within that time they had probably published the second tweet and you could breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that all was well.

            I have no sympathy or respect for people who refuse to ask questions about what they read, whether they are frightened citizens or twitchy, moronic “investigators” in the capitol police department. If one makes no effort to realize context, then you get what you pay for.

          4. Thank you for the actual figure. This all assumes that the person did not dig deeper and figure out what this “Onion” thing really is.

          5. If people take a single tweet by a satirical account at face value and
            start panicking, then it’s their problem, not the Onion’s. The context
            of having been tweeted by the Onion account should be enough to indicate
            it’s not to be taken seriously, regardless of hashtags.

             Blaming the Onion for this is just
            condoning censorship by idiocy. I guess you think the guy who got
            arrested for joking about blowing up an airport deserved it too?

      2. No, it is silly, because it’s The Onion. What you describe in your post, the “subtle cues and indicators of ‘play,'” most people call that context. The fact that the post was written and posted by The Onion on their official Twitter feed, a feed that has never posted a serious sentence in its entire existence, should provide people with all the context that they need.

  2. Their first tweet really threw me off when it popped up, but the second one made it pretty clear it was just the Onion being the Onion. Done in bad taste perhaps, but that’s kind of their schtick.

    I like to think of it as them making a critique on how readily people believe anything they read, even when it comes from a source known to produce fiction.

  3. I imagine our security state will respond by jailing someone. That tends to be our reaction to anything we feel is threatening.

      1. On the other hand, we’re both wrong: these days the state really doesn’t need any justification to jail anyone as long as it is tangentially related to a vague reference to violence somewhere, of some kind, and of some degree.

  4. Does the Onion’s twitter feed ever provide real breaking news?  Wouldn’t you have to be following them to see this?  

    Now I understand when people get confused if they get sent to the Onion from another site and don’t look at the URL.  But if you’re looking at a tweet that starts with “Onion” then why would you ever assume it was a reliable news source?  

    1. this was my thought, too: it’s THE ONION. how did they miss that? it’s what they DO! it’s not like they ever tweet factual breaking news.

  5. One can hope that the real feds (e.g. FBI) will be as dismissive of the Capitol Police as they are of other Barney Fifes.

  6. Also, I’d like to define “backfired” here, because I don’t think the Onion minds the massive increase in traffic on the associated parody news article.

  7. I like a good joke as well as the next man, but that’s not funny. Grotesque, yes, and perhaps even true in a metaphorical sort of way, as Congress is holding the whole country hostage. But definitely not humorous.

  8. The Onion used to be a lot funnier than it’s been lately.  I’ve noticed a reliance on running older material from their classic era.  Time for some new blood, I’d say.  These days they seem to lean on sensationalism and easy targets.  I thought the Twitter thing spoke to their desperation and lack of imagination.

    1. “The Onion used to be a lot funnier than it’s been lately.  I’ve noticed a reliance on running older material from their classic era.  Time for some new blood, I’d say.”

      I don’t know what you’re talking about, this was somewhat of a downer because of the overreaction, but they’ve been on their game for the last six months or so i’ve been paying attention again.

    1. I linked to the correct tweet in this post, but goofed at first and copy-pasted the wrong tweet text in the body of my post. That’s now fixed. The tweet that freaked everyone out was: 

      “BREAKING: Witnesses reporting screams and gunfire heard inside Capitol building.”

      (that’s all, no hashtags, no congressmen with guns)

      which was followed later by a tweet that was clearly a joke: 

      “BREAKING: Capitol building being evacuated. 12 children held hostage by group of armed congressmen. #CongressHostage”

      That second one was obviously a joke for several reasons, one of which is the hashtag, one of which is “12 children held hostage by group of armed congressmen.”

      The earlier tweet contained no such subtle indicators, which caused people to react as they did.

  9. But it MUST be true, I read it on the interwebs…

    If there weren’t already so much disinformation in Wikipedia, I would expect someone like the Onion to be deliberately adjusting reality to see if it made it mainstream.

  10. Regardless of the poor taste of the joke…

    Are there really people out there that think the Onion provides real news?!?!

    Since police are now involved, this can only end badly.

    Since the joke setting is in DC, you can bet some law will now be passed that will suppress parody (protected by 1st amendment), and it will be written so broadly it will either be completely toothless or it will ban all parody.

  11. To those complaining that this “isn’t funny”:

    The point of satire isn’t always to be funny.  Satire can be dark, disturbing.  Swift’s “Modest Proposal,” a classic of satire, isn’t the funniest thing ever written.  Congress holding children hostage? That’s close enough to reality to be a fair target of satire, even if it’s not the funniest thing I’ll read today.

  12. comedy technique #47: place disturbing social phenomena we’ve grown numb reading about into new context. creates cognitive dissonance and finally laughter when audience gets it. considered a brute force routine.

  13. Hey look a joke book! Why don’t I open it up and read one of these jokes? I could sure use a laugh!
    *opens book*
    Hmm… let’s see here… “A man walks into a bar and says ‘Ouch!’.” OH MY GOD! IS HE OK?!?!??!? IS HE CONSCIOUS!?!??! DOES HE HAVE A CONCUSSION?!?!? WHY ISN’T ANYONE CALLING AN AMBULANCE??!?

  14. It seems like the greater the chance of a person getting taken in by this Tweet, the greater chance they think something like this could actually happen. It’s interesting that so many apparently think it possible.

  15. This is stupid. Poor taste? Sure. BUT IT’S THE FRAZZAZZILIN’ ONION! Anyone confused by it needs their head checked.


    That. Was. Awesome.

    1. Why would anyone take anything written by the Onion seriously?

      Onion stories get picked up as real all the time by news organizations in the US and internationally.  Chinese state television has done it a couple of times.  Small -town newsrooms in the US do it as well.  Everybody ain’t city slickers like y’all.

  16. But at first, many of the media watchers and journalists in my tweet-stream wondered if the Onion had been hacked.

    Seriously, the story of ninnies overreacting to a tweet from the account of a very well known satirical news publication is news. It shows how frayed and fragile the 24 hour news cycle is and how gullible some are. The Onion itself should not be blamed or chastised. What dink gets their real news from The Onion

    Also, when the tweet is described as “An oddly presented tweet…”, how is it actually any more/less odd than something Improv Everywhere or The Yes Men would have done? Other than one thing: This is very clearly a “news” headline from The Onion?!?!

      1. Leave the interns alone!

        Seriously, now FOX is reporting:
        “Capitol Police End Inquiry into Onion Satire”

        Let me make it simpler for anyone: 1000% anyone in the world including self-proclaimed “media- experts” should find new jobs if they actually believe that a FAKE news publication was somehow HACKED to post a FAKE HEADLINE.  Seriously, I’ve been following The Onion for a good long while and recall tons of incidents of real publications reporting news stories from The Onion as real. But this has to be the 100% first time something like this not only happened so quickly but gained validity by dozens of ninnies thinking “Well, the headline is from The Onion, so it must be real, right?”


        And connecting this to the craziness in Mexico is really nonsense.

        1. And connecting this to the craziness in Mexico is really nonsense.

          Really? Systemic repercussions for Twitter posts? Not as far apart as you dismiss. It would be more on-point if it were Congresspeople calling for Onionoids to be disciplined/re-educated, but violence is not the only means of comparison here. 

  17. They should ship the staff of the Onion off to Chicago for this act, as punishment.  Oh wait, they already are.

    1. They could never do something as funny as this in Chicago. The crust on the pizza is too thick in Chicago.

  18. It’s either the Onion making an unfunny misstep or playing the rest of the media industry like a tightly strung violin.

    I wouldn’t have been taken in though, because I only get my news from The Daily Show.

  19. Systemic repercussions for Twitter posts?

    Really? A very well known satirical news publication tweeting something is on the same level as what has happened in Mexico?

    1. A very well known satirical news publication tweeting something is on the same level as what has happened in Mexico?

      In a way, among those who were taken in by this, especially anybody who thinks they should apologize.

  20. “Part of what makes comedy work are subtle cues and
    indicators of “play,” that we’re in on this humor thing together.”

    Like, say, reading something posted from a well-known parody/satire/humor site that isn’t known for breaking any real news.

    After all, anything from such a site would be immediately and transparently seen as a joke (no matter if in good or bad taste) and it would take a truly special kind of stupid for people to think anything from a site like that is real and … um …

    Oh. We Americans (and particularly our media) are a special kind of stupid, aren’t we?


  21. The story here is clearly that some people took it seriously… why everyone’s pointing out that there are multiple ways that people should have realized it was fake, I’m not sure – that’s totally irrelevant. We all know that. These people didn’t – that’s the story.

    And come on now, are we really going to believe The Onion didn’t intend that to happen?

  22. Increasingly of late The Onion has been distinctly unfunny. And it knows it. The one guy who is writing headlines for the obscure Rumford Meteor 


    is funnier on a daily or hourly basis than the Onion “staffers.”This little stunt just confirms that The Onion knows it is losing it. It’s pure publicity and doesn’t care if it is funny (it’s not) or depraved (it is)… the only thing that matters here is that it is talked about. Look for the Onion to descend even deeper into this kind of pointless “look at us please ” crap as it’s fortunes become ever more not funny.

  23. Did the Onion just vanish behind a paywall? I surfed over there and each article is hidden by a banner asking for subscriptions. Where’s my free ice-cream, etc?

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