Satirical news site The Onion has found itself facing criticism after tweets regarding a supposed hostage situation on Capitol Hill in Washington DC were written in such a way that it was impossible to tell if they were real or fake. A joke gone too far or an incredibly clever twisting of Twitter into a new kind of comedic vehicle? That’s up for debate.
The first tweet actually led to some speculation that the account might have been hacked, as there was no reference to any joke or satire whatsoever.
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Now, on one hand it’s The Onion, so satire is expected. However, in the absence of context or punchline, it was confusing to say the least.
Only in the third tweet in the sequence did we get a link to a story on the site which was clearly a satirical “Congress holding the nation hostage” joke in the typical Onion mould. However, the standalone tweets, free of all context have continued save for a #CongressHostage hashtag, along with a post to the site’s Facebook page.
As a result, angry reactions about The Onion “Going too far” and “Not being funny” ensued. In this case, it appears the police even investigated the reports. The key problem being that if you read the feed of tweets in order it makes sense. On Twitter though, it’s easy to take things out of context and a poorly judged retweet can take on a life of its own.
However, maybe that was the point. Maybe The Onion wanted to hold a mirror up and show how hysterical and ridiculous the act of spreading breaking news as quickly as we can, no matter how much or little we really know about what’s happening has become. This tweet from Scott Tobias sums this argument up perfectly…
Whether you think The Onion made a mistake with its approach today or not, it all boils down to the good old lessons: ‘Think before you retweet’ and ‘Question everything you read.’