Some people believe Earth is flat. Some people believe the Trump administration is using a seedy internet forum to send coded messages about Satanic pedophile rings. Now a movement of young memers is parodying more established conspiracy movements with an outlandish claim of its own.
The U.S. government eradicated all birds in 2001 and replaced them with surveillance drones, the Birds Aren’t Real movement alleges. The movement (which conveniently sells merchandise) is thriving off young people’s sense of the absurd in the Trump era, the movement’s founder said.
Peter McIndoe, 20, says he’s completely serious in his belief that birds are actually inorganic machines designed to surveil and police Americans. The movement, which he started last year, has spiked in recent weeks, after it caught the notice of popular YouTubers and meme accounts. “The higher ups were so annoyed that birds had been dropping fecal matter on their car windows that they vowed to wipe out every single flying feathered creature in North America,” and replaced them with robots from 1959 to 2001, the group claims on its website.
But in interviews with The Daily Beast, McIndoe and four regional Birds Aren’t Real leaders all took jabs at other conspiracy movements, with some regional chapters outright admitting that the whole thing was satire.
“I do get asked a lot ‘is this satirical? Is it a joke?’” McIndoe told The Daily Beast. “Frankly I think the concept of it being some sort of socio-political satire, or the thought of it being an observation on the post-truth era through comedy, I think that’s kind of absurd. I think our values and our views should be valued just as equally as any others. And I think just because we’re saying ‘birds aren’t real,’ that should be true with the same respect as when people say birds are real.”
Earlier in the movement’s history, McIndoe was more upfront about its satirical nature.
“i made a satirical movement a few months ago, and people on instagram seem to like it a lot,” he posted on Facebook in November 2017. “now there's a facebook so the moms of the current ‘bird truthers’ can be in on it too.”
Now, a year into the movement, he distanced himself. “That was actually by a staff member who has since been removed,” he said of that old Facebook post.
Birds are real. This is demonstrably true, and has been since before the dawn of humanity. The Audubon Society, a non-profit for bird conservation, documented the meme earlier this month, and declared it to be a joke.
“Wow—we sure hope so,” an Audubon Society spokesperson told The Daily Beast when asked whether birds are real.
But the joke, and an online shop that monetizes it, surged in popularity in late October. That’s when YouTuber PieDiePie featured the meme in a semi-credulous video that racked up more than 4 million views. A number of the movement’s most vocal backers got involved around the same time.
Unlike QAnon, which draws a large middle-aged fan base, Birds Aren’t Real is popular with Generation Z.
The “Birds Aren’t Real Ohio” Instagram account is run by a college student who bought the movement’s merchandise then realized the fake movement had no Ohio chapter. Last month “I [direct messaged] the ‘official’ Birds Aren’t Real Twitter account and asked if I could run the Ohio chapter and they said yes,” the student told The Daily Beast via Instagram message.
“For me personally, the Birds Aren’t Real movement is more of a satirical approach to counteracting such far-fetched conspiracies (such as flat earthers),” Birds Aren’t Real Ohio said. “When making my posts, I try to make them humorous but still serious enough to make people think. This is a fun challenge for me, and I hope at least mildly entertaining for those that follow my account!”
An Instagram account for “Birds Aren’t Real NY” said the operation was a parody of “other conspiracy theories since the idea that birds aren’t real is just as outlandish as the earth being flat.” The satire had flourished on Instagram, where anti-bird jokes can be grafted onto “trending memes since they usually all have the same setups.”
Austin, Texas’s “Birds Aren’t Real” Instagram account insisted they sincerely believed in the movement. But even this chapter said some of their work was in satirizing other conspiracy movements.
“While we like to poke fun at other conspiracies, the majority of what I make” is serious, the group claimed. (They conceded that some Austin-based bird truthers believed chickens are real.)
McIndoe, who denied that the movement was satirical, acknowledged that it would be a good satire of recent conspiracy theories like QAnon. That theory, which falsely claims President Donald Trump’s opponents are Satanic pedophiles, has seen true believers descend ever deeper into a social media-fueled falsehood. Rather than abandon the theory when its predictions ring false, adherents have entrenched themselves further in Facebook groups and forums full of other believers.
“If it were satirical, those are probably movements I’d be making a satire of,” McIndoe said of his conspiracy movement. “But being that it’s not, I would say those people, I think, are very grounded in their beliefs. Because they’re in a community or in an echo chamber with people confirming their beliefs and telling them what they think is true, I think it’s grown to the point where it’s impossible for them to see it any other way. Because really we’re living in a time when we can craft our community. My Twitter feed is only the way it is because of who I follow.”
The person behind the Instagram account “Birds Aren’t Real Charleston” identified as a 19-year-old College of Charleston student, who said the movement was something of a joke between friends at the school. Together, they distributed anti-bird literature at a public market, where “one lady said I was ‘scaring the kids with the flyers,’” the student said.
McIndoe speculated that his movement might resonate with young people’s feeling of instability in the Trump era.
“I think they can relate to that feeling because so much of what we see in the daily news cycle is so absurd. I see so much in the news these days that’s a headline I never would have believed five years ago. I think because it fits into the absurdity of the everyday news, it makes Birds Aren’t Real special because our movement special.”
Meme historians have previously linked political chaos to a rise in absurdist memes. A Washington Post column on the topic became a meme, itself, with digital content-makers photoshopping the article into oblivion.
A number of regional Birds Aren’t Real pages link to McIndoe’s website, where he sells stickers and apparel. The movement’s New York chapter said it didn’t really mind that it was helping McIndoe push merchandise, since “I just like the punchline of the joke so I don’t spend much time thinking about that.”
It’s not the first conspiracy to hawk merchandise. QAnon believers can lose their money on a range of QAnon jewelry, clothing, and car decals. The conspiracy news outlet Infowars does a brisk business selling supplements that will supposedly save buyers from a variety of government control programs.
McIndoe guards his movement’s merchandise carefully. When the internet culture database Know Your Meme added an entry about Birds Aren’t Real last month, McIndoe left a comment about a Birds Aren’t Real T-shirt pictured in the article.
“The wrong shirt is on here- that’s a rip-off,” he wrote, adding that “the real shirts are on” his website.
Like QAnon and Chemtrails before it, the fake conspiracy had attracted real grifters, out to make money regardless of whether they believed.