This short article written by the staff writers of the satirical newspaper The Onion, was published in response to a mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon on October 1, 2015. Published on the same day of the event, the brief article appears in the News in Brief portion of the online newspaper, by itself an ironic counterpoint to what made headlines and got live coverage in other news media sites. The article’s placement and brevity are only the beginning of the irony, which deepens as it offers some basic factual details about the shooting, a vox populi quote in which someone expresses sadness and powerlessness to make any change, and some statistical data on how regularly this happens in the United States of America. All by itself, the article satirizes those who cannot conceive of gun control as an option while using irony to encourage Americans to take action.
But that is only a portion of a larger rhetorical strategy based on computational logic.
On June 17, 2015, on the wake of a mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, the Onion published a very similar article (see below).
Readers of this article will quickly note that even though photo and the details of the real event are different, the rest of the article is almost exactly the same. The only variation is the name and provenance of the person in the vox populi interview.
Does this seem familiar? Perhaps you read an earlier article, published on May 27, 2014 (see below).
This response to another real mass shooting event in Isla Vista, California became the template for the two most recent articles, effectively using an e-poetic rhetorical argument. By applying the same headline and article to the latest mass killing spree, The Onion staff writers are using a strategy that Gertrude Stein used in her poetry and discussed in her lecture “Portraits and Repetition.”
Think about all the detective stories everybody reads. The kind of crime is the same, and the idea of the story is very often the same […] but once started expressing this thing, expressing any thing there can be no repetition because the essence of that repetition is insistence, and if you insist you must each time use emphasis.
While Stein goes on explain the inevitable variations in emphasis that come from insistent repetition, we can clearly see the strategy at work in this recurrent article in The Onion. From this perspective these three articles could be considered the same computational work, written with two variables (real mass shooting event, fake vox populi interview), and generated and published every time there is a mass shooting in the US. The repetition of the tragic events magnify the insistence of the article, casting emphasis on how the events could be prevented, on how some people are willfully ignoring the elephant in the room, of the American people are not really “helpless.”
The vox populi variable, whether it’s generated or tactically chosen, offers people with different names (that carry implied information on gender, class, and ethnicity) from different states to create identification from some of the audience. The goal is for you as a reader to identify with someone saying “This was a terrible tragedy, but sometimes these things just happen and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop them,” and then imagine the statement spoken (or thought) by you.
Would you want to stand idly by, accepting the inevitability of recurrent mass shootings?
This computational rhetoric gains power through repetition. And whether it runs computationally or its algorithmic argument is carried out by humans, it carries as much conviction on its issue as Mark Sample’s protest bot @NRA_Tally. It’s inescapable argument is that every time a new iteration of this article is published, it signals a failure on the part of an otherwise great nation and its people to do something about it.
Editor’s note (February 15, 2018): These articles have continued, and can be found here.