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Why this Onion article goes viral after every mass shooting

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Another mass shooting has turned some corner of an American city or town into a scene of terror and chaos, and the death toll — one is too many — has been splashed across newspaper pages in double-size font. One publication appears to capture the frustration and futility felt by so many people. Not fake news, not exactly real news, but something else: the satirical outlet the Onion.

Two strangers bond over country music and beer. Then the gunshots started.

The publication saw one of its largest days of online traffic ever on Monday, according to a spokeswoman. One of its most popular articles of the day was an article that it first published about a mass shooting more than three years ago: ‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens’ reads the headline of the piece.

The site republishes the article after mass shootings, changing only the dates, the location of the violence, and the number of individuals killed.

“There’s nothing anyone can do to stop them,” said Iowa resident Kyle Rimmels, echoing sentiments expressed by tens of…

Posted by The Onion on Monday, October 2, 2017

The article’s latest iteration drew a flood of attention on Monday after a 64-year-old gunman killed 58 people and wounded more than 500 others at a country music festival in Las Vegas. It was shared more than 100,000 times on Facebook and Twitter, and drew thousands of comments about its merits as a piece of commentary.

But why do people turn to a satirical story with made-up quotes during a moment of such gravity?

“I think the Onion can say things about gun violence that journalists haven’t been saying,” said CNN media correspondent Brian Stelter, who shared on Twitter Monday an image that showed all the times the article had been published. “They are channeling the frustration of a huge section of the county that’s baffled and bewildered about what’s going on.”

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The article was first written after a college student killed six people — stabbing three and shooting three others — in the area around the University of California at Santa Barbara in May 2014. But in the years since, the Onion has republished the article four times in the wake of other violent shootings: at a Charleston church; a community college in Oregon; and a holiday party in San Bernardino, Calif., in 2015; in addition to Las Vegas.

The repetition seems to underscore the tragedy of what the article implies could be a solvable problem: that mass shootings are a regular facet of life in the United States.

By pointing out the country’s high rates of gun violence — the article cites the very real statistic that citizens are 20 times more likely to die of gun violence here than in other developed countries — it seems to implicitly reference the debates about gun control that grow louder after mass shootings.

“For decades, I had an old record player, and the gun issue reminds me of the times when the needle gets stuck,” said Larry J. Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center For Politics. “We’re going through the same things over and over again, and the same bromides are offered, and it’s frustrating.”

The Onion followed it up Monday with a smattering of other articles with similar messages about gun violence and mental health in the United States.

“Those Close To Nation Say It Showed Dozens Of Warning Signs Leading Up To Massacre,” read another Onion headline. By the end of the day, all five of the most popular articles on the site were about gun violence, three of them versions of the “No Way To Prevent This” article.

The lives lost in Las Vegas

Satire, typically an expression of the powerless made in the face of power, can make for a particularly sharp and strong form of commentary, according to Michael A. Seidel, an emeritus professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University who has written extensively about the use of satire as a literary tool. 

But though it may be a potent way to give voice to intellect, insight, wit and humor, satire is typically less effective at changing minds or policy, Seidel said.

“The whole point about satire is that its subjects are usually too obtuse to recognize that they deserve the abuse,” he said. “It tends to address itself to an audience that’s already in its own sphere. That’s part of the power of satire and part of the problem.”

Because of this, part of the article’s message that resonates is its hopelessness — the resignation that these kind of shootings will continue to happen.

“They will be printing this same story in five or 10 years,” Stelter said.

The Onion declined to comment on the article, with a spokesman saying that “the satire speaks for itself.” But its editors have described the pride they take in the article, describing it as a piece of commentary, not humor.

“By re-running the same commentary it strengthens the original commentary tenfold each time,” managing editor Marnie Shure told Vice in September. “In the wake of these really terrible things, we have this comment that really holds up.”

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