The Onion's violent satire painting fictional images of Rep. John Boehner and others as masked gunmen holding up children ignited real fears of gunfire in the U.S. Capitol building.
The jokester paper is known for creating far-fetched scenarios in order to poke fun and possibly make serious points about American culture. However, the Onion's tweet proclaiming at 10:33 a.m. Thursday, "BREAKING: Witnesses reporting screams and gunfire heard inside the Capitol Building" turned the laughter into stone-faced fear.
The message was re-tweeted over 100 times and ignited speculation of an attack, according to news reports. The capitol was, in fact, largely empty in celebration of Rosh Hashanah. Those who were present were not pleased with The Onion's dark humor. Rep. Eric Cantor's aide, Brad Dayspring, tweeted, "Onion; FAIL." Another congressional staffer fired back at The Onion on Twitter stating that the message had alarmed the office.
The United States Capitol Police spokeswoman Kimberly Schneider also released a statement to Gawker, stating, "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. There is no credibility to these stories or the twitter feeds. The U.S. Capitol Police are currently investigating the reporting."
A spokeswoman for The Onion confirmed that the Twitter postings were genuine, and its Twitter account had not been hacked. However the publication continued to tweet messages about the fictional congressional hostage situation.
Ten minutes after the first tweet, the Onion "live"-tweeted, "Capitol building being evacuated. 12 children held hostage by group of armed congressmen." The publication also sent out tweets like "Congress demanding $12 trillion ransom or 'all the kids die'" and "[Barack] Obama on bullhorn: 'John, I know you can hear me in there. Please, you don't need to do this.'"
The tweets were related to a spoof news article about U.S. House and Senate members holding a class of school children hostage for the money needed to heal the national debt.
The story also featured doctored pictures of House Speaker Boehner holding a gun to a child's head and Democratic leader Harry Reid with black panty hose on his head and a gun in his hand. There was also a video in which viewers are led to believe that Boehner killed a child found with a cell phone.
The Onion may have been trying to satirize statements in which politicians – often made Republicans – state that the growing national debt is a threat to American's children and the future generation.
However, its violent representation of these remarks came the day after FBI agents arrested a Massachusetts man Wednesday accused of plotting to attack the Capitol and Pentagon with remote-controlled aircraft filled with explosives.
Several people admonished the spoof news source with the Twitter hash tag #notfunny. TkwTERRY wrote, "Today's tweets are supposed to be funny? Not by my standards. Sick and twisted, yes, but not even mildly amusing." Danieldubya wrote, "I love the Onion but this #congresshostage thing is over the top. Insensitive, stupid, not funny."