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Onion story on Capitol Hill hostages sparks probe

September 29, 2011|By James Oliphant
  • A doctored photo of a fake congressional hostage standoff published by the satirical news site The Onion.
A doctored photo of a fake congressional hostage standoff published by… (The Onion )

Gunfire on Capitol Hill. Children taken hostage. John Boehner making ransom demands. President Obama pleading on a bullhorn.

Sound ridiculous? Well, that's the Onion's stock in trade. This is a site that currently features a story titled "Syracuse Leaves Big East for a Woman Named Misti."

The satirical news site posted an item about a purported standoff at the U.S. Capitol in which desperate members of Congress took a group of kids hostage in order to pay off the national debt. At one point the story noted:

"The schoolchildren were then led at gunpoint into the nearby Great Rotunda, where an agitated, profusely sweating Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) bound their hands and feet and duct-taped them to various sculptures, including a monument to women's suffrage and a marble figure of former president James Garfield. Although cellphones were confiscated immediately, one student managed to tweet a short video showing what appeared to be Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) pistol-whipping a chaperone who attempted to yell for help."

The publication began tweeting updates of the situation, including one that said: "BREAKING: Witnesses reporting screams and gunfire heard inside Capitol building."

That alarmed enough Twitter users that the U.S. Capitol Police began an investigation to determine the source of the reports. With both the House and Senate in recess, the Hill is in fact unusually quiet. But just a day earlier, the FBI had arrested a man in Massachusetts who allegedly planned to bomb the Capitol.

Earlier in the afternoon, the police released a statement that attempted to calm the populace:

"It has come to our attention that recent Twitter feeds are reporting false information concerning current conditions at the U.S. Capitol," said Sgt. Kimberly Schneider, a spokesman for the department. "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."

Ultimately, Schneider said, police figured out the whole thing was a hoax. "We now know the source of the reporting," she said later. "In the beginning, there were so many retweets, reports from different places, etc., that it took a bit to track down the original source of the reporting."

The Onion showed no signs of remorse over the confusion, posting an update Thursday to its original hostage story. Perhaps inspired by Orson Welles, it also posted a story stating the Earth was close to being destroyed by an asteroid.

No word on whether NASA is investigating.

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