If your Twitter feed is lighting up with reports of “screams and gunfire” at the Capitol building, breathe easy. It’s The Onion.
The satirical newspaper began a series of tweets at 10:33 A.M. EDT on Thursday, which gave regular updates about a group of congressmen taking a group of children hostage. Subsequent tweets noted that two chaperones were also taken hostage and that one representative tried to shoot down a police helicopter. Yet another noted that Rep. Eric Cantor had purchased 6 handguns last month. The Onion‘s Twitter account used the hashtag #CongressHostage on their tweets, and updates were also posted on The Onion‘s Facebook page.
Once Twitter users calmed down and realized the reports were false, the first thoughts were of hacking. After all, various other (non-parody) media outlets have been hacked on Twitter as of late. But The Onion confirmed to the Washington Post that the tweets were theirs. “This is satire,” a representative said. “That’s how it works.”
The story seems to be a purposely executed series of stories that took a great deal of planning. The site published an article about the “hostage situation” and even created a video, which features frightened children and the sound of a gunshot.
So what’s the real humor here? The general opinion is mixed. Some Twitter users chuckled at the irony, since the media tends to use the dramatic term “held hostage” during tense Congressional negotiations. Others are decrying The Onion for being inappropriate and provoking fear among those who can’t immediately detect satire. The A.V. Club’s Scott Tobias noted that the rush to believe what we read is the true message. “Thinking the real satire behind
#CongressHostage is the response to it. Post 9/11, we’ve become a nation of feral cats,” he wrote. Others compared the stunt to Orson Welles’ 1938 radio drama “War of the Worlds,” which tricked many listeners into believing an alien invasion was taking place.
Government officials aren’t taking the satire lightly. “It has come to our attention that recent Twitter feeds are reporting false information concerning current conditions at the U.S. Capitol. Conditions at the U.S. Capitol are currently normal,” said a statement from Kimberly Schneider, spokesperson for the Capitol Police. And according to Politico, the Capitol was actually mostly empty today, as Congress was out to observe the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana.