The inside story of the greatest congressional Web prank ever

August 5, 2013

If you're a fan of the HBO cult series "Flight of the Conchords" (or of the band that show starred), you're surely familiar with "Robots," Bret and Jemaine's harrowing tale of what will happen in the distant future — the year 2000, to be specific — after the robots rebelled and killed all the humans:

So it was pretty great when Georgetown student Josh Zeitlin discovered that the Web site of Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) listed a "distant future event" occurring March 1, 2014, featuring two of those dastardly robots:


But it wasn't just Nadler. Dozens upon dozens of congressional Web sites had that event or a similar one. There was Kay Granger (R-Tex.):


Joe Pitts (R-Pa.):


José Serrano (D-N.Y.):


And many others, collected by PolicyMic's Ryan Myers here. Clearly, the conspiracy went much deeper than anyone suspected.

It was clear from the get-go that the Easter egg had something to do with the early 2011 installation of Drupal, a widely used content management system, as the platform upon which House.gov sites are based. But the default Drupal set-up didn't contain a "distant future" event for testing purposes, and it didn't seem to be part of a theme that House.gov was using. What's more, the events all seemed to use the same event address, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW. While that's a pretty famous address worldwide, it seemed more like a joke that congressional staffers would make than one Drupal hackers outside D.C. would.

Shortly after this reporter contacted the U.S. House of Representative's Chief Administrative Officer, which manages the lower house's Web presence, the events disappeared from almost every site. Here's what Nadler's page — http://nadler.house.gov/event/distant-future-event — looks like now:


Compare that to the screen grab at the top of this post, or the archived version of the site at Archive.org. John Wilwol, a spokesman at the CAO, spent several days asking around his office before determining what had happened. On Monday, he issued the following statement:

The content was filler created by the CAO’s web development team for a source site used to build certain Member sites. It was inadvertently published due to an error during the production process and has since been removed. Production processes are being reviewed to prevent this from reoccurring.

Bravo, CAO's Web development team, and boo on whoever's call it was to remove the Distant Future Event. The humans deserve to be warned of their impending demise and we should expect our members of Congress to keep us abreast of any robot uprising-related developments.

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Brad Plumer | August 5, 2013