Birds Aren’t Real, or are they? Inside a Gen Z conspiracy theory
In Pittsburgh; Memphis, Tennessee; 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 do not 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 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,” 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, 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, 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, Florida, 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.”
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 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. 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,” McIndoe said. “My whole understanding of the world was formed by the internet.”
By the time McIndoe left home for the University of Arkansas in 2016, he said, he realized he was not the only young person forced to straddle multiple realities.
Then, in January 2017, McIndoe traveled 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 said, he ripped a poster off a wall, flipped it over and wrote three random words: “Birds Aren’t Real.”