Yesterday, The Onion caught a tremendous amount of flack for tweeting, as a kickoff to a longer Twitter narrative related to a story about a hostage-taking scenario in Congress (riffing, of course, on the debt ceiling debate), “BREAKING: Witnesses reporting screams and gunfire heard inside Capitol building.” The publication followed that tweet almost immediately with another that was a clear joke, “BREAKING: Capitol building being evacuated. 12 children held hostage by group of armed congressmen. #CongressHostage,” but the initial tweet had already been dramatically amplified beyond the account’s followers and had people questioning whether real violence was underway.
So did The Onion go too far with the first tweet? It’s an interesting question that’s the result of a collision with two sets of norms: first, The Onion expecting that everyone will know that anything comes out under the publication’s name is a joke; second is the assumption that in the case of grave tragedy, everyone breaks character to respond to it. The latter norm is, I think, stronger, and in the age of Twitter, we haven’t really accounted for the few exceptions to that rule. I can’t think of a single situation where The Onion’s broken character. I mean, they did the September 11 attacks brilliantly, but they did them by digging deep and getting back to the core of what had made the site great, and pulling approximately no punches. This story about a Muslim kid getting bullied on the playground is heartbreakingly predictive and really damning, as was this savaging of commercial exploitation of the attacks.
So in a way, I appreciate The Onion’s resolute willingness to go a little too far in the service of what was a fairly sharp story. But I think they should have included a link to the actual story. If you’re playing by a slightly tweaked set of rules from everyone else, it doesn’t hurt to reaffirm that, especially when touching on sensitive ground in a medium that encourages misinterpretation and often loses context in the process.