Real or Onion? On Twitter, you can’t tell

A new iPhone app makes light of people's inability to distinguish serious news from satire.

Mar 3, 2020, 10:08 am*


Fernando Alfonso III 

Fernando Alfonso III

Are you tired of being made fun of by your friends for accidentally believing sensational headlines from The Onion, the satirical newspaper?

Well, Gelf Magazine cofounder David Goldenberg sure was, which is why he helped create Real or Onion, an iPhone app that tests your headline-sleuthing ability.

For years, editors of Gelf, a long-running independent webzine, have been stumping each other with Onion headlines on a daily basis. But after  Gelf writer Adam Rosen pointed out one Reuters headline in particular—“Rap music glamorizes drug use – study”— Goldenberg was inspired to create the game and Twitter account to go along with it.

It’s fitting that the app goes hand in hand with Twitter. After all, it’s easy for jokey headlines to spread on Twitter—and, ripped of context, for people to take them seriously.

“Twitter is the perfect way to share this simple idea. Anyone can play, and anyone can suggest headlines,” Goldenberg told the Daily Dot in an email. “For the next version of the app, we’re going to let people directly tweet headlines for submission.”

In the iPhone game, users decide on whether a headline is real or from The Onion and receive stats on how many people got it right. The same goes for Twitter, where people can quiz themselves on headlines provided by Gelf or submit their own.

Sensational headlines and satirical stories have been the bread and butter for The Onion for the last 23 years. The fake news organization has a print circulation of more than 400,000, as well as some 7.5 million online readers, but its proudest accomplishment is fooling other legitimate news organizations, and people, into believing its stories are true.

On Wikipedia there’s a detailed list of these sorts of incidents, including one in September where the Onion started tweeting that children had been taken hostage at Capitol Hill.

The California Parenting Institute is still dealing with calls from parents upset about a fake study the Onion attributed to it in an October article, “Study Finds Every Style of Parenting Produces Disturbed, Miserable Adults.”

While fabricating the news is something real news organizations generally avoid, the use of sensational headlines is more widespread than ever before, Goldenberg said.

“I’ll briefly say that many news organizations, desperate to stay afloat in these trying times, are doing three things that lead them down the Onion-y path,” he said. “One—they pump out way too much content with far too little thought about what’s actually newsworthy. Two—now that they can see what people like to read, they go for the low-hanging fruit. Three—in an attempt to be both SEO-friendly and catchy, they Frankenstein unintentionally hilarious headlines all the time.”

So if you try out Real or Onion and find you’re scoring low, don’t blame yourself. Blame the media.

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*First Published: Dec 7, 2011, 4:54 pm