Yesterday, The Onion began tweeting gunfire in the Capitol. The premise was that US Congress took America’s children hostage. Oh, cruel satire, you are hilarious! Except not everyone knew it was a joke. And now the Capitol police are investigating. Uh-oh.
Look, I’m a big fan of The Onion. And I’m an even bigger fan of lying on Twitter. Or at least, satire and joking on Twitter. But The Onion screwed up. And it screwed up because it lied wrong. Yeah. There is a right way, and a wrong way to lie on Twitter. At least if you’re trying to make a point that will make people think, or laugh, or react in any way other than with fear and anger.
Let’s this should go without saying, but let’s put it out there first: The things you read on Twitter (or Facebook) ought to be taken with a few litres of salt. It is essentially the public square, where you pick up voices as you wander through. And for as much credit as it gets as a reporting tool, Twitter has always been full of crap. And there’s nothing wrong with that!
For example, see this 2006 video of Jack Dorsey showing off some of Twitter’s features. Just before the 16-minute mark, Dorsey shows off Twitter’s top-ranked tweets. Number 4 on that list? It’s this tweet from my friend Mike Monteiro, who claimed to have just been shot. It set off a minor panic among his friends, but most people immediately recognised that Mike was probably lying. I mean, nobody, after getting shot, is going to first update their Twitter status. And besides, Mike is an inveterate liar. Hell, Mike is still lying on Twitter.
I have my own history of lying on Twitter. In 2008 (and again in 2009, semi-professionally) I fake-tweeted my way through SxSW as if I was there, although I actually never left the comfort of my foggy abode in San Francisco. It was a lot of fun! And hopefully, made some sort of point about the vacuousness of that whole nerd-name-dropping scene. But it also confused a lot of people. My mum, for one. But also plenty of attendees, who found it just believable enough to bite. Yeah, I was imitating a 20-something arrogant blowhard, but very many people thought that I really was that guy. I got called a douchebag again and again, which made my goddamn muffin.
Another example was the brilliant @BPGlobalPR from last summer. Before he was unmasked, Josh Simpson took over the Internet with his tweets parodying the inept response of BP’s communications team following the oil spill last summer. It was hilarious. All the moreso because so many people wanted to believe it really was BP.
In short, all of these little Twitter stunts confused a lot of people, but were also all obviously jokes. And that’s what made them funny. That auroa of believability offset by common sense is the key to a good lie on Twitter. You have to make people think it might be real, while still letting them in on the joke.
And then there’s The Onion. The Onion and The Daily Show are our two greatest modern engines of satire. I’m not sure that The Onion has ever made a completely factual statement Twitter. When The Onion began tweeting yesterday about gunfire in the Capitol, it was obviously a joke, right? So what was the problem? Why did people get so pissed?
Easy. The Onion started on the wrong foot. That first tweet read “BREAKING: Witnesses reporting screams and gunfire heard inside Capitol building.” That didn’t telegraph anything about the satirical notion of Congress holding kids hostage. Instead, most people probably thought that Congress itself was under attack. And that was a huge stuff up. Congress is unpopular in the US, but nobody wants another national tragedy.
The Onion broke the wall. It scared people. It reminded them of recent and horrible tragedies. It was Gaby Giffords and Anders Breivak and even 9-11 all over again. It was making a joke about that horrible place nobody wants to go to, ever again.
Comedy has to do that from time-to-time. But in this case, The Onion fell flat. That’s largely because Twitter was the wrong venue. Twitter is a great venue for satire. But it’s all quick hits, and that Congressional satire needed setup; it needed room to breathe.
Instead, it just took everyone’s breath away.