The Onion, a popular satirical news outlet, prompted a real-life reaction Thursday morning from U.S. Capitol Police when it ran with a fake story about a hostage situation in Congress.
At around 10:45 a.m., The Onion tweeted: “witnesses reporting screams and gunfire heard inside Capitol building.”
Shortly after, The Onion tweeted: “Capitol building being evacuated. 12 children held hostage by group of armed congressmen.”
The message linked to a full story on the “hostage situation,” complete with a doctored photo of Speaker of the House John Boehner holding a gun to the head of a small child.
The joke, for those who don’t get it, is that congressional Democrats have been accusing GOP members of “holding Congress hostage” for most of the year.
But not everyone got the joke. In fact, it sparked concern among some on Capitol Hill.
The Capitol Police quickly responded to the rumors, saying in a statement: “It has come to our attention that recent Twitter feeds are reporting false information concerning current conditions at the U.S. Capitol.”
Capitol Police spokeswoman Sgt. Kimberly Schneider said, “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.”
An Onion spokesperson told the Washington Post: “This is satire. That’s how it works.”
This isn’t the first time, nor is it likely the last, that an Onion article has been mistaken for the truth. In 2002, The Beijing Evening News — a Chinese newspaper with a circulation of 1.25 million — reprinted portions of an Onion article claiming the U.S. Congress would move to another town unless Washington built it a new Capitol Building.
Still, these are small peanuts compared to the 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds,” which sent thousands of unwitting Americans into a panic, believing that an alien invasion was at hand.