Known for its biting wit and political satire, many people weren’t fooled when The Onion started tweeting about gunshots at the Capitol building. But some were startled, including the police.
On Thursday afternoon, The Onion sent the following tweet:
“BREAKING: Witnesses reporting screams and gunfire heard inside Capitol building.”
There was nothing in the tweet itself to indicate that it was in any way a joke, and hundreds of Twitter users were alarmed. Some thought that perhaps The Onion was hacked, or that the gunfire was actually happening.
But if they had just stuck around for about 4 more minutes, they would have seen the next tweet from The Onion:
“BREAKING: Capitol building being evacuated. 12 children held hostage by group of armed congressmen. #CongressHostage”
The ludicrous image of congressmen holding children hostage, and the hashtag #CongressHostage is enough to assuage anyone’s worries that this tweet is anything more than just a satirical joke from the faux-news outlet.
A series of tweets containing the hashtag followed, eventually linking to “bonus” material, like contraband camera phone video from the hostages, on their website.
However, it was that first tweet – the one without any context, hashtag, or even a winky-face to indicate that it wasn’t real – that got the attention of the police.
As the New York Times Media Decoder reports, the Capitol Police had to issue a statement, presumably after looking into whether there was any truth to the tweets, indicating that they were false:
“Twitter feeds are reporting false information concerning current conditions at the U.S. Capitol. Conditions at the U.S. Capitol are currently normal. There is no credibility to these stories or the Twitter feeds.”
It looks like no serious repercussions will be felt by The Onion, but this sort of thing highlights both the lack of context that tweets can have – especially if they are retweeted – and the fast response that law enforcement is expected to have when it comes to things posted on social media.