Blog Archives

Was #CongressHostage a #Fail For The Onion?

On Thursday of last week, @TheOnion (the official Twitter account of satirical American news agency The Onion) sent out this tweet:

Pretty alarming, right? They followed it up with this, about 10 minutes later:

So by this point hopefully most people were able to figure out it was satire (or a hoax, depending on your perspective). If you’ve never heard of The Onion before, they’re a satirical news organization and a quick scan around their website (or the other tweets in their Twitter feed) would reveal that in a hurry (mostly because real news organizations don’t tend to curse quite that frequently).

The problem raised was whether or not they went too far, especially with that first tweet. It’s very easy for content to be buried on Twitter if you don’t go looking for it. If all you saw was that first tweet, you might have missed that it was satire (and if you look at the following tweets, they have proper spelling and the content is presented well – part of why people often don’t realize right away The Onion is not a real news site). And there’s always that hesitation where you wonder if an organization like The Onion, even if it is a satirical news site, has a duty to report real, major news like a hostage taking or major attack. Whether or not they were serious about the story, it created enough buzz that police in Washington will be investigating.

Regardless of how ridiculous the story was, and how quickly it became apparent it was a hoax, it did make waves across Twitter and around the net. @TheOnion has a pretty high Klout score and some suggest they gained quite a few followers during the whole debacle. There’s even an entire blog devoted to people caught taking reports by The Onion seriously. And many first (or at the very least second) reactions upon seeing the tweets were “Did they get hacked?”, which, thanks to similar, recent incidents at Fox News and NBC, is a common reaction (but a good one).

The Onion has responded to the criticism, saying “This is satire, this is how it works.”. It’s not the first time they’ve found themselves in hot water over satire that some view as going too far (note the date). Adding fuel to the fire this time was a man arrested the day before over a plot to attack the US Capitol Hill and Pentagon. Regardless of their intentions, it’s important to remember a few things when you pull open Twitter and see an alarming tweet or trending topic, or if you visit a major news site and see a breaking news article.

Question the Source

…and especially in this day and age, look very closely at whether or not it’s a legitimate article or is the result of a hacker attack.

Verify it Elsewhere

“Hmm. The Onion has a story about shots being fired on Capitol Hill. Does Fox have it? MSNBC? CNN? NBC? PBS?”.

Avoid Wild Speculation

If all you had to go on was that first tweet, you might have thought something very serious was happening. Those who waited for more details realized it was a hoax. 140 characters does not a story make.

And now I’m hoping to hear from you. Did you hear about the #CongressHostage story as it was breaking? Did The Onion cross the line? Or did those who fall for it have only themselves to blame? Let us know in the comments.


For more on ways to protect yourself from being tricked online, read my previous blog post “You Can’t Trust Everything You Read On Twitter (Or Online in General)”.

How To React If You Get Hacked

The next generation

This is Part 2 of a Series on Online Safety. Read Part 1.

It’s a terrible feeling, logging in to an account online and knowing someone other than you has accessed it. I’d hate to draw comparisons with having your home burglarized since that’s (fortunately) never happened to me, but it’s the closest online equivalent.

How did it happen? Well, maybe it’s because you clicked a suspicious link. Other times, you may have forgotten to log out of some account on a work or school or friend’s computer. A computer you were on may have had some kind of malware or keylogger on it designed to steal your information. Or a jolly band of hackers stole your information from a company you had trusted it to. Whatever the cause, you now have to take a few steps.

Run A Scan

…for malware, viruses, spyware, keyloggers, etc. etc. Make sure you get the check from a reputable source since it could very well be that trusting something that looked legitimate (but wasn’t) is what got you into this mess in the first place! CNET has a pretty good selection of software that will perform these types of scans for you.

Change Your Password(s)

Note that this is step 2. If you change your password first, but don’t clear any malware, you could just have your account broken into again.

Tally Up The Damage

Figure out what messages were sent out, what was charged to your credit card, or what information might have been taken. If it was something like an email or social networking account, contact those who might have been sent messages and tell them to follow these steps if they clicked on anything. If it’s Facebook, Twitter, or Google+ in particular, delete any messages left behind by the person who broke into your account. Leaving them up there just runs the risk of someone else making the same mistake.

Not quite what I meant by "Tally Up The Damage"


This in particular relates to your social media accounts being compromised, and goes double if your account is also used to interact with fans or customers. Remember, these are people who trust you and subscribe to your updates because they feel you have good content to share. If you’ve wronged them and don’t make it right, you can tarnish your online reputation.


Don’t let this happen again! Think about how you might have reached this situation, and consider what you can do differently next time.

Now, a few prevention tips…

Won't deter hackers, but could deter thieves...

Get Some Protection

There are several decent free programs. I personally use Malwarebytes Anti-Malware but use whatever works for you. Full blown retail anti-virus software can be good, but remember it’s a huge drain on your system’s resources (sometimes, it’s worse than having a virus!) and they’re typically not cheap (granted, the cost is fairly marginal versus the damage someone could do with access to certain accounts).

Always Log Out When You’re Done

…especially if you own a laptop or tablet and are leaving it unattended for any period of time. In some instances, you’ve got to be as worried about strangers on the internet as you do about the ones who are sitting right next to you. And if your classmates or co-workers are practical jokers…

Don’t Use The Same Password For Everything

A no-brainer. If you can’t remember all your various passwords, keep a paper list somewhere safe in your home. Or, if you back up your files externally, consider keeping a password protected document with your account names and passwords. Also, change your passwords regularly! And don’t make them easy to guess!

Question Everything Online

You ever read that old saying an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure? Taking the few extra seconds to message someone and ask if what they sent you was legitimate shouldn’t offend them! The one time it turns out to be something harmful, you’ll both be glad you did.

It seems just about every show now we talk about the latest scam spreading on Twitter or Facebook. I won’t say who, but recently I noticed several people I follow on Twitter click on a bad link, and they passed it on to others, and it spread across the city. Most of the people clicking these links were¬† journalists, trusted people who are in the public eye and expected to be critical thinkers who question everything. It’s a serious hit to their brand and trustworthiness, and even worse is when they do nothing about it even as people try to get in touch with them to tell them it’s still going on.

Have you ever had your online security compromised recently? Let us know in the comments!


You Can’t Trust Everything You Read on Twitter (or Online in General)

What do Nelson Mandela, Charlie Sheen, Steve Jobs, Barack Obama, Jackie Chan, Jim Carey, Gordon Lightfoot, Kanye West, Paris Hilton, Eminem, Aretha Franklin, Avril Lavigne, Aaron Carter, Russell Crowe, Taylor Lautner, Bill Cosby, Christian Slater, Hugh Hefner, Morgan Freeman, Lindsay Lohan, Jeff Goldblum, James Avery, BB King, Satoshi Tajiri, and yes, even the Biebs, have in common?

They’re just some of the celebrities who ‘died on Twitter’.

Don’t believe everything you read on the internet. Abraham Lincoln

The exact origins of some of these death hoaxes can be hard to find. This article traced a few of the bigger ones back to a few specific tweeters, and usually once the people behind the handles realize they’ve posted something that’s wrong they will try to correct themselves. But think about how Twitter works for a second. Whether people are saying “RIP Charlie Sheen” or “omg Charlie Sheen isn’t dead u guyz”, it contributes to the trending topic “Charlie”. When someone tries to see why “Charlie Sheen” is trending, they may only see people offering their condolences and so the hoax carries on.

It’s been a bit easier to fix now that Twitter shows a “Top Tweet” in each topic so if the originator can get a correction up there and delete the original tweet, the truth can be spread a bit easier. That’s part of why there haven’t been many big hoaxes lately. But if you look carefully, you’ll notice the big ones always have a few things in common. For example….

The most recent hoax centered around Steve Jobs. He’s been ill for several months and has a long and complicated medical history which makes it a ‘believable’ hoax, especially since he stepped down as CEO over health reasons. A correction was posted fairly quickly, and that’s a good thing too since the account that posted it may not have a lot of followers but it definitely seems like a credible source and that can be enough for some people. It has a fancy background, a link to, and everything is spelled correctly. Seems trustworthy, right? So it’s believable, the source looks legitimate, and the ‘target’ is certainly someone who can generate a buzz. All key ingredients. (By the way, the show associated with that Twitter account was affiliated with CBS News prior to the hoax, and it seems like that’s come to an end now…)

A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on. –Winston Churchill

I think another reason some of these succeed is people see them and say to themselves, “What does someone have to gain from lying about whether or not Charlie Sheen is dead?”. Sometimes, it’s your information. Unscrupulous people or companies will use trending topics to spread malware and other viruses and take control of your computer. That’s why you need to carefully check your source, question it, and remain skeptical until you’ve heard it verified by a trustworthy news agency. Better yet: if it’s a big enough celebrity, check their personal website. You could also look at their Twitter or Facebook page, but make sure it’s theirs and not one that is fan-run.

For some people, one time is not enough. Jackie Chan has been the victim of two death hoaxes this year alone. And some real deaths, like Ronnie James Dio’s, are reported, then deemed a hoax, then turn out to be true a short time later. This makes it harder for news agencies and Twitter users to really know if someone is actually dead. But approaching it with a healthy dose of skepticism isn’t a bad thing, especially when the end of the world doesn’t depend on you knowing the answer this second.

This may not be a ‘celebrity death hoax’, but just days before the tenth anniversary of 9/11 NBC News’ Twitter account was hacked, with those behind it posting about a supposed attack on Ground Zero. And similarly, @FoxNewsPolitics was hacked in early July and the hackers (same group as with the NBC hack) used it to spread a death hoax about US President Barack Obama. So if you see something on a website or coming from a Twitter account that you trust, but believe the news itself is suspect, it’s always better to wait than risk being taken for a ride or sharing something that could be harmful with your friends and followers. Also, consider following some of these hacker groups like LulzSec on Twitter so you can see what they’re up to. LulzSec is technically defunct and has stopped posting, but I’m using them as an example.

While the old adage about not trusting everything you read online covers the point of my article nicely, I think it bears repetition when you’re browsing social networks because we do tend to establish a sort of personal connection with what we read and who is telling us this information. That can be dangerous sometimes. The media contact for the local fire department tweets out a lot of information when he’s live on the scene of a fire, but I always call to verify before that info goes to air because I never know who might’ve picked up his phone or got his password from somewhere. My intent is not to scare you off of Twitter or online learning, but to remind you to always question the things you are reading on the internet.

Which reminds me…if you have any questions, comments, or feedback be sure to leave them at the bottom. Looking forward to speaking with you on this topic! Happy tweeting, and safe travels on the web!



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 35 other followers