Massive billboards in cities across the United States 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-fuelled conspiracy theory, which posits that birds do not exist and are really drone replicas installed by the US 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 members of the US Democratic Party. 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 is 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,” says Claire Chronis, a 22-year-old Birds Aren’t Real organiser in Pittsburgh. “My favourite way to describe the organisation is fighting lunacy with lunacy.”
At the centre of the movement is Peter McIndoe, a floppy-haired college dropout in Memphis, who created Birds Aren’t Real on a whim in 2017. For years the 23-year-old stayed in character as the conspiracy theory’s chief believer, commanding acolytes to rage against those who challenged his dogma. But now, McIndoe says, 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 says. “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 American 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, McIndoe says.
“Birds Aren’t Real is not a shallow satire of conspiracies from the outside. It is from the deep inside,” he says. “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, a 21-year-old activist from Parkland, Florida, who helped organise the March for Our Lives student protest against gun violence in 2018 and is involved in Birds Aren’t Real, says 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.”
McIndoe, too, marinated in conspiracies. For his first 18 years he grew up with seven siblings in a deeply conservative and religious community 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 says.
By the time McIndoe left home for the University of Arkansas in 2016, he says, he realised he was not the only young person forced to straddle multiple realities.
Then, in January 2017, McIndoe travelled to Memphis to visit friends. Donald Trump had just been sworn in as president, and there was a women's march downtown. Pro-Trump counterprotesters were also there. When McIndoe saw them, he says, 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."
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 southern states.
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
In Memphis “Birds Aren’t Real” graffiti soon showed up. Photos of the phrase being scrawled on chalkboards and the walls of local high schools surfaced. People made “Birds Aren’t Real” stickers.
McIndoe decided to lean into Birds Aren't Real. "I started embodying the character and building out the world this character belonged to," he says. 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,” McIndoe says. “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.”
Gaydos adds, “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.”
In 2018 McIndoe dropped out of college and moved to Memphis. To build Birds Aren’t Real further, he created a flyer that shot to the top of Reddit. He hired an actor to portray a former CIA agent who confessed to working on bird drone surveillance; the video has more than 20 million views on TikTok. He also hired actors to represent adult bird truthers in videos that spread all over Instagram.
To adults with concerns about McIndoe’s tactics, researchers say any harms have most likely been minimal.
"You have to weigh the potential negative effects with any of this stuff, but in this case it is so extremely small," says Joshua Citarella, an independent researcher who studies internet culture and online radicalisation in youth. "Allowing people to engage in collaborative world building is therapeutic, because it lets them disarm conspiracism and engage in a safe way."
McIndoe says he kept the concerns in the top of his mind. “Everything we’ve done with Birds Aren’t Real is made to make sure it doesn’t tip into where it could have a negative end result on the world,” he says. “It’s a safe space for people to come together and process the conspiracy takeover of America. It’s a way to laugh at the madness rather than be overcome by it.”
Birds Aren’t Real members have also become a political force. Many often join up with counterprotesters and actual conspiracy theorists to de-escalate tensions and delegitimise the people they are marching alongside with irreverent chants.
In September, shortly after a restrictive new abortion law went into effect in Texas, Birds Aren’t Real members showed up at a protest held by anti-abortion activists at the University of Cincinnati. Supporters of the new law “had signs with very graphic imagery and were very aggressive in condemning people”, McIndoe says. “It led to arguments.”
But the Bird Brigade began chanting, “Birds aren’t real.” Their shouts soon overpowered the anti-abortion activists, who left.
Yes, we have been intentionally spreading misinformation for the past four years, but it's with a purpose
McIndoe now has big plans for 2022. Breaking character is necessary to help Birds Aren’t Real leap to the next level and forswear actual conspiracy theorists, he says. He adds that he hopes to collaborate with major content creators and independent media like Channel 5 News, which is aimed at helping people make sense of the United States’ current state and the internet.
"I have a lot of excitement for what the future of this could be as an actual force for good," he says. "Yes, we have been intentionally spreading misinformation for the past four years, but it's with a purpose. It's about holding up a mirror to America in the internet age." – This article originally appeared in The New York Times