How the joke ‘conspiracy’ Birds Aren’t Real became a real conspiracy about a fake conspiracy.
14 April 2022 | James Porteous | Clipper Media News
Backstory: Birds Aren’t Real
Peter McIndoe (born 1997/1998) created the satirical conspiracy “on a whim” in Memphis, Tennessee, in January 2017.
In 2017, he posted on Facebook: “I made a satirical movement a few months ago, and people on Instagram seem to like it a lot.”He later disclaimed the post, saying it was written by a staffer who was fired, and did not admit until 2021 that he did not truly believe the conspiracy.
The movement first attracted attention during the 2017 Women’s March at the University of Arkansas, at which McIndoe and other supporters appeared carrying anti-bird signs.
The movement argues that all birds in the United States were exterminated by the federal government between 1959 and 1971, and replaced by drones; the specifics of these theories as reported in news articles are not always consistent, not unlike actual conspiracy theories.
They claim that birds sit on power lines to recharge themselves, and that bird poop on cars is a tracking method. The theory states that U.S. president John F. Kennedy was assassinated by the government due to his reluctance to kill all the birds.
On a march, Peter McIndoe held up a sign and talked about how the ‘deep state’ had replaced all birds with drones. It was meant as a small act of satire but has become a mass movement
In early 2017, Peter McIndoe, now 23, was studying psychology at the University of Arkansas, and visiting friends in Memphis, Tennessee. He tells me this over Zoom from the US west coast, and has the most arresting face – wide-eyed, curious and intense, like the lead singer of an indie band, or a young monk.
“This was right after the Donald Trump election, and things were really tense. I remember people walking around saying they felt as if they were in a movie. Things felt so unstable.”
It was the weekend of simultaneous Women’s Marches across the US (indeed, the world), and McIndoe looked out of the window and noticed “counterprotesters, who were older, bigger white men. They were clear aggravators. They were encroaching on something that was not their event, they had no business being there.” Added to that, “it felt like chaos, because the world felt like chaos”.
McIndoe made a placard, and went out to join the march. “It’s not like I sat down and thought I’m going to make a satire. I just thought: ‘I should write a sign that has nothing to do with what is going on.’ An absurdist statement to bring to the equation.”
That statement was “birds aren’t real”. As he stood with the counterprotesters, and they asked what his sign meant, he improvised. He said he was part of a movement that had been around for 50 years, and was originally started to save American birds, but had failed. The “deep state” had destroyed them all, and replaced them with surveillance drones. Every bird you see is actually a tiny feathered robot watching you.
Someone was filming him and put it on Facebook; it went viral, and Memphis is still the centre of the Birds Aren’t Real movement. Or is it a movement? You could call it a situationist spectacle, a piece of rolling performance art or a collective satire. MSNBC called it a “mass coping mechanism” for generation Z, and as it has hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, “mass”, at least, is on the money.
It’s the most perfect, playful distillation of where we are in relation to the media landscape we’ve built but can’t control, and which only half of us can find our way around.
It’s a made-up conspiracy theory that is just realistic enough, as conspiracies go, to convince QAnon supporters that birds aren’t real, but has just enough satirical flags that generation Z recognises immediately what is going on. It’s a conspiracy-within-a-conspiracy, a little aneurysm of reality and mockery in the bloodstream of the mad pizzagate-style theories that animate the “alt-right”.
Birds Aren’t Real didn’t stay in Memphis – in a sequence reminiscent of the Winklevoss scene in The Social Network, when they realise just how big Facebook has become, McIndoe recalls being back at college, five hours away from Memphis. “I remember seeing videos of people chanting: ‘Birds aren’t real,’ at high-school football games; and seeing graffiti of birds aren’t real. At first, I thought: ‘This is crazy,’ but then I wondered: ‘What is making this resonate with people?’”
It’s no surprise that it first gained popularity among high schoolers. The younger you are, the quicker you get it.
“Teenagers understand it, they don’t need footnotes,” McIndoe says. I asked my own two teenagers if they were aware of Birds Aren’t Real. They went off on some crazy extemporising, where pigeon was pronounced “piggin” and doves had the greatest surveillance accuracy, and it seemed that they really did have a good working knowledge of how a fake conspiracy theory functioned, with its need for jargon and taxonomy.
Then I asked again the next day, and it turned out that they’d never heard of it, they were just taking the piss. Teenagers do just seem to get it. I still need quite a lot of footnotes.
In Pittsburgh, Memphis and Los Angeles, massive billboards recently popped up declaring, “Birds Aren’t Real.”
On Instagram and TikTok, Birds Aren’t Real accounts have racked up hundreds of thousands of followers, and YouTube videos about it have gone viral.
Last month, Birds Aren’t Real adherents even protested outside Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco to demand that the company change its bird logo.
The events were all connected by a Gen Z-fueled conspiracy theory, which posits that birds don’t exist and are really drone replicas installed by the U.S. government to spy on Americans. Hundreds of thousands of young people have joined the movement, wearing Birds Aren’t Real T-shirts, swarming rallies and spreading the slogan.
It might smack of QAnon, the conspiracy theory that the world is controlled by an elite cabal of child-trafficking Democrats. Except that the creator of Birds Aren’t Real and the movement’s followers are in on a joke: They know that birds are, in fact, real and that their theory is made up.
What Birds Aren’t Real truly is, they say, is a parody social movement with a purpose. In a post-truth world dominated by online conspiracy theories, young people have coalesced around the effort to thumb their nose at, fight and poke fun at misinformation. It’s Gen Z’s attempt to upend the rabbit hole with absurdism.
“It’s a way to combat troubles in the world that you don’t really have other ways of combating,” said Claire Chronis, 22, a Birds Aren’t Real organizer in Pittsburgh. “My favorite way to describe the organization is fighting lunacy with lunacy.”
At the center of the movement is Peter McIndoe, 23, a floppy-haired college dropout in Memphis who created Birds Aren’t Real on a whim in 2017. For years, he stayed in character as the conspiracy theory’s chief believer, commanding acolytes to rage against those who challenged his dogma. But now, Mr. McIndoe said in an interview, he is ready to reveal the parody lest people think birds really are drones.
“Dealing in the world of misinformation for the past few years, we’ve been really conscious of the line we walk,” he said. “The idea is meant to be so preposterous, but we make sure nothing we’re saying is too realistic. That’s a consideration with coming out of character.”
Most Birds Aren’t Real members, many of whom are part of an on-the-ground activism network called the Bird Brigade, grew up in a world overrun with misinformation. Some have relatives who have fallen victim to conspiracy theories. So for members of Gen Z, the movement has become a way to collectively grapple with those experiences. By cosplaying conspiracy theorists, they have found community and kinship, Mr. McIndoe said.
“Birds Aren’t Real is not a shallow satire of conspiracies from the outside. It is from the deep inside,” he said. “A lot of people in our generation feel the lunacy in all this, and Birds Aren’t Real has been a way for people to process that.”
Cameron Kasky, 21, an activist from Parkland, Fla., who helped organize the March for Our Lives student protest against gun violence in 2018 and is involved in Birds Aren’t Real, said the parody “makes you stop for a second and laugh. In a uniquely bleak time to come of age, it doesn’t hurt to have something to laugh about together.”
Mr. McIndoe, too, marinated in conspiracies. For his first 18 years, he grew up in a deeply conservative and religious community with seven siblings outside Cincinnati, then in rural Arkansas. He was home-schooled, taught that “evolution was a massive brainwashing plan by the Democrats and Obama was the Antichrist,” he said.
He read books like “Remote Control,” about what it said were hidden anti-Christianity messages from Hollywood. In high school, social media offered a gateway to mainstream culture. Mr. McIndoe began watching Philip DeFranco and other popular YouTubers who talked about current events and pop culture, and went on Reddit to find new viewpoints.
“I was raised by the internet, because that’s where I ended up finding a lot of my actual real-world education, through documentaries and YouTube,” Mr. McIndoe said. “My whole understanding of the world was formed by the internet.”
By the time Mr. McIndoe left home for the University of Arkansas in 2016, he said, he realized he wasn’t the only young person forced to straddle multiple realities.
Then in January 2017, Mr. McIndoe traveled to Memphis to visit friends. Donald J. Trump had just been sworn in as president, and there was a women’s march downtown. Pro-Trump counterprotesters were also there. When Mr. McIndoe saw them, he said, he ripped a poster off a wall, flipped it over and wrote three random words: “Birds Aren’t Real.”
“It was a spontaneous joke, but it was a reflection of the absurdity everyone was feeling,” he said.
Mr. McIndoe then walked around and improvised the Birds Aren’t Real conspiracy lore. He said he was part of a greater movement that believed that birds had been replaced with surveillance drones and that the cover up began in the 1970s. Unbeknown to him, he was filmed and the video posted on Facebook. It went viral, especially among teenagers in the South.
In Memphis, “Birds Aren’t Real” graffiti soon showed up. Photos of the phrase’s being scrawled on chalkboards and the walls of local high schools surfaced. People made “Birds Aren’t Real” stickers.
Mr. McIndoe decided to lean into Birds Aren’t Real. “I started embodying the character and building out the world this character belonged to,” he said. He and Connor Gaydos, a friend, wrote a false history of the movement, concocted elaborate theories and produced fake documents and evidence to support his wild claims.
“It basically became an experiment in misinformation,” Mr. McIndoe said. “We were able to construct an entirely fictional world that was reported on as fact by local media and questioned by members of the public.”
Mr. Gaydos added, “If anyone believes birds aren’t real, we’re the last of their concerns, because then there’s probably no conspiracy they don’t believe.”