The Onion is the most famous fake news website in the world, adored by millions who visit the site regularly for a cheap laugh as well as sharp political satire. But even fake news has certain responsibilities.
Recently The Onion began publishing articles that framed the Syrian conflict according to the very biased views of U.S. politicians and mainstream media. Suddenly The Onion's objectivity and satire was reduced to regurgitating the war mongering that the website had previously mocked.
For example, a recent satirical Onion article was entitled: “‘Help Has To Be On The Way Now,’ Thinks Syrian Man Currently Being Gassed.”
The article quotes a fictitious Syrian named “Amir” who is a victim of a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government. Amir begs for foreign intervention to help save him from the Syrian government.
The article begins:
"As Syrian military aircraft rained chlorine gas on his community Tuesday, local man Amir Najjar, 36, reportedly assured himself that military and humanitarian aid from foreign governments must certainly be racing toward the country at this very moment to protect him and other helpless civilians."
Given the current international debate about the use of chemical weapons in Syria — and the potential for this debate to result in a military invasion — the Onion's article is profoundly irresponsible. The article assumes that the U.S. intelligence agency (CIA) is correct when it stated that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against the U.S.-backed rebels.
But the same CIA also said that Iraq had "weapons of mass destruction,” which was a fabricated lie. Millions of lives are at stake in Syria, and the situation is uncertain. Blindly echoing these statements of the U.S. government against Syria only serves to re-enforce these yet-proven accusations, the consequence of which could be the loss of millions of lives.
This isn't to say that The Onion doesn't have a right to satirize the Syrian conflict. But the current situation in Syria is critical, and a U.S.-backed invasion a very real possibility. The Onion hasn't shown appropriate caution as to how its assertions may affect impressionable readers on a subject that is still very much in flux. One need only imagine if the Onion published articles before the Iraq War calling for U.S. intervention against Saddam's alleged Weapons of Mass Destruction. The Syria situation is no different.
To be clear, there has been zero evidence presented that supports accusations that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against the U.S.-backed rebels, let alone civilians. Middle Eastern journalist Robert Fisk wrote an excellent article about this, while President Obama was forced to acknowledge as much the same day The Onion article was published.
With its Syria articles The Onion has thrown its influence firmly into the pro-war camp. This is significant because The Onion remains — like Jon Stewart's Daily Show — a very real source of political influence; the website has written articles with a sharp political perspective to intentionally cultivate this image.
For example, when President Obama recently visited Israel, The Onion wrote a number of excellent articles about the trip that exposed Obama's unabashed support of Israel while offering zero realistic solutions to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The Onion has likewise written a number of great articles about the U.S. economy that millions of people can relate to — articles that again expose the lies that U.S. politicians are telling people about the economy. (This writer has posted several Onion articles on Facebook with the intention of raising political awareness.)
The point is that The Onion's readers enjoy the articles, in part, because they trust the writers to base their satire on a foundation of accurate political analysis. Many readers would be less enthusiastic about The Onion if they concluded that some of their articles were mimicking U.S. war propaganda.
Worse still, The Onion's article suggests that U.S. military intervention would be a "good" thing, presumably based on the previous "successful" U.S. invasions that destroyed and fragmented the nations of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.
The article again quotes the fictional 'Amir':
“The United States and many other nations publicly stated that the use of chemical weapons was a line that [Syrian] President [Bashar] al-Assad could not cross and would draw a swift and overwhelming response, so I have 100 percent confidence they [U.S.-NATO] are on their way to save us right now.”
After the examples of Iraq and Libya, few Middle Eastern people — even opponents of Syria's government — would have any reason to believe that a U.S. military invasion would "save" them.
Ultimately, The Onion has zero responsibility to practice responsible journalism, but it does have a duty to its readers — who trust the website's liberal political perspective — not to re-enforce war propaganda that could result in yet another U.S. military adventure.
Hopefully, The Onion corrects its mistakes about Syria before it acquires the sad honor of being the first fake news website with blood on its hands.