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.