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Onion C**t Tweet Shows Risks Of Real-Time Humor

Sydney Golombek |
February 28, 2013 | 2:43 p.m. PST


The satirical news website, The Onion, published a tweet that even CEO Steve Hannah didn’t find funny. The distasteful tweet, posted at 11:42 pm EST on Sunday, caused a Twitter meltdown. It read:

Popular media has a long tradition of denigrating women. (Twitter)
Popular media has a long tradition of denigrating women. (Twitter)

Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Quvenzhane Wallis is kind of a c - - t, right? #Oscars2013.

Within an hour of its publication, the tweet was removed—but in today’s media-centric culture, some things live on in perpetuity.

Directed at nine-year-old Oscar nominee, Quvenzhané Wallis, the tweet caused a tremendous amount of user backlash against The Onion. By noon on Monday, CEO Hanna released a formal apology noting that the company had taken measures to institute tighter regulations on its twitter feed.

But this raises a question about the nature of the tweet itself and the longevity of a digital trace. Once a tweet is published, it exists—permanently. The Onion’s tweet was an example of real-time humor gone wrong. Satire in real-time will undoubtedly cause tension—such is the nature of comedy in a virtual platform—and for a publication that encourages its writers to be edgy, it can be difficult to determine where to draw the line. For Onion followers, in this case, there was nothing funny about calling a nine-year old girl the c-word.

The Onion tweet tried to exchange opposite value for the young actress’s unquestionably adorable personality by calling her the worst word a woman can be called – but this was a misdirected effort at humor. The tweet resonated very poorly with readers and was not received as a joke. Popular media has a long tradition of denigrating women. What does it say about our culture to laugh at a disgusting word directed toward a defenseless girl?

The company tweeted the insult, but it did not tweet the apology. Instead, The Onion deleted the tweet and apologized on its Facebook page. The switch in media platforms was not particularly effective in communicating the apology. In changing platforms, The Onion assumed that all of its Twitter followers were also fans of the Facebook page. The company would have better reached its Twitter followers though… Twitter!

Humor across real-time social media platforms is high-risk. The Onion took satire too far. A young woman should never be subject to such meaningless offense, in the name of humor or not. The Onion writer, who is probably now fired, should have taken George Carlin’s advice on the seven dirty words that are just inappropriate for public broadcast.


Reach Contributor Sydney Golombek here.



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