Conspiracy theories have become an integral part of digital life today. Widespread distrust in leading institutions after decades of neoliberalism has led many to seek out new ways to find information—or what they believe to be the truth—online. In response to movements like QAnon in recent years, a slew of parody conspiracies have captivated many on the internet. Today, they continue to grow in popularity. From TikTok users trying to prove that snow is a governmental deception to Hillary Clinton’s alleged satanic ritual purported by Frazzledrip, a broad range of fake theories have gripped mainstream culture and seem to be here to stay.
In a world where up to 50 per cent of Americans believe QAnon’s claim that “a group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media” is correct or may be correct, it seems only natural that conspiracy theories of all varieties are continuing to flourish online. One such parody conspiracy gaining traction in recent months is ‘Birds Aren’t Real’, a satirical artistic movement that insists that birds were replaced by government surveillance drones as far back as the 1970s.
With over a million followers across Instagram, TikTok and Twitter, Birds Aren’t Real has gained substantial momentum online since its conception in 2017. Behind the movement is 23-year-old Peter McIndoe, who was inspired to join counter-protestors on a whim during a women’s march in Memphis held after Trump was elected. At the time, he thought that mirroring the lunacy of the pro-Trump supporters by strongly backing a faux conspiracy—aka Birds Aren’t Real—would be funny. Since then, the satirical movement’s popularity has accelerated amongst gen Z, prompting the formation of Birds Aren’t Real chapters at universities across the US.
The conspiracy group’s members, who call themselves the ‘bird brigade’, have even joined protests in recent months, including a rally outside of Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco. In a world where online conspiracies continue to result in real-world chaos, McIndoe and his followers attempt to counter misinformation with more misinformation, having fun while doing so.
In fact, comedy is a crucial component to the success of Birds Aren’t Real. When speaking of an anti-abortion protest that his followers dismantled a few months ago, McIndoe said that the bird brigade “went into a situation that was intense, confrontational and non-aggressively diffused the harm that was being done through comedy.” This new, inadvertent form of counter-protesting has become a way for gen Z to process the mania that surrounds them on and offline in a supportive and satirical way.
So, apart from the element of comedy, why has Birds Aren’t Real become so popular now? In an interview with The New York Times, McIndoe used a metaphor to explain the movement. He said that participating in Birds Aren’t Real in the digital age is like making an igloo in a snowstorm, or rather building “a shelter out of the same type of material that’s causing the chaos.”
Gen Z is the first generation to grow up entirely online, and because of this, they’ve encountered the chaos of the internet for most of their existence with no societal precedence on how to handle this type of lifestyle. As a result, the loneliness and disconnect caused by digital platforms—as well as recent real-world events such as the COVID-19 lockdowns—have caused people of all ages to gravitate towards conspiracy theories. But, instead of finding themselves down one of the many rabbit holes the internet could have led them to in search for a sense of belonging, members of the bird brigade “have found themselves in this place that’s not dark,” wrote New York Times internet culture reporter Taylor Lorenz.
Though Birds Aren’t Real is satirical, it’s important to consider what happens when a parody conspiracy theory is co-opted by real conspiratorial thinkers. As the internet has blurred the lines of what’s real and what isn’t, making this distinction has become increasingly salient as well as difficult. Though, many thinking and writing about the role of satirical conspiracy theories today have landed on their positive attributes. Art critic Ben Davis, for instance, considers that the danger of the parody becoming something negative is probably “outweighed by the good of giving a cultural community a mission to band around.”
Many who fall into the thick of conspiratorial thinking continue to dive deeper into obscure—often extremist—beliefs as it allows them “to feel like they have agency over their lives,” said Lorenz. Birds Aren’t Real achieves the same effect of community, but in a creative—rather than damaging—manner.
Joshua Citarella, a visual artist, additionally noted that “allowing people to engage in collaborative world building is therapeutic because it lets them disarm conspiracism and engage in a safe way.” Through his research on polarised online communities, Citarella has found that many engage with extremist views as “a genre identity that they try on and take off.”
Because of the internet, “you can move between those extremes with seemingly no friction,” he continued. While older generations tend to be confused, frustrated, or fall captive to identity subcultures that have mushroomed across the internet, gen Z takes this language of their generation in stride. Understanding that radical internet identities can easily be adapted and discarded, the generation’s fascination and promotion of Birds Aren’t Real makes total sense, as the movement means nothing, quite like a lot of these radical positions often seem to. So, while Bird’s Aren’t Real isn’t real, its ability to provide a sense of community, belonging and understanding to those in on the joke very much is.
It’s been said that QAnon is the mother of all conspiracy theories. Since its modest beginnings with Pizzagate in 2016, QAnon has grown from a fringe movement to a seemingly all-inclusive convergence of multiple right-wing conspiracy theories related to COVID-19, vaccines, 5G networks, Bill Gates, Donald Trump, and a “Deep State” cabal that harvests adrenochrome from children. Some have gone so far as to claim that QAnon has become a new American religion.
By the end of 2020, an NPR/Ipsos poll confirmed broad support for some of the beliefs falling underneath the wide QAnon umbrella. Nearly 40 per cent of Americans endorsed belief that the “Deep State” was working to undermine President Trump and as many as 1 in 3 believed that voter fraud helped Joe Biden win the presidential election. The claim that “a group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media” was rated as false by a mere 47 per cent of respondents. But ironically, 83 per cent voiced concern about the spread of false information.
How can we explain why so many people believe in things not supported by empirical evidence? How did people come to believe in Pizzagate, the conspiracy theory that Hilary Clinton was running a child pornography ring out of the basement of a pizzeria that actually had no basement? How did people believe something as obscure and lacking in evidence as “Frazzledrip,” another conspiracy theory claim that Clinton was filmed tearing off the face of a child, wearing it as a mask, and then drinking the child’s blood?
Although a common temptation is to invoke mental illness or delusional thinking as an explanation, such accounts mostly fall flat. For one thing, surveys have consistently shown that about half of the population believes in at least one conspiracy theory. So conspiracy theory beliefs, like religious beliefs, are normal, unless we want to start proposing that half the population has a psychotic disorder.
Although psychology research has found some support for a kind of subclinical paranoia being related to conspiracy theory belief, most findings indicate that it is a matter of more quantitative differences in certain subtle ‘cognitive quirks’ that we all tend to have to some degree. For example, greater needs for closure, certainty, and control could explain why some tend to embrace conspiracy theories during times of crisis and chaos.
Psychological needs for uniqueness can explain how belief in conspiracy theories are often rewarding, based on believers’ fantasy of “seeing the light” in a way that “uncritical sheep” do not. Lack of analytical thinking and ‘bullshit receptivity’ have also been implicated in conspiracy theory belief, but these are also widespread liabilities of normal human brains and results of poor education, not deficits of psychopathology per se.
A more convincing account of QAnon conspiracy theories like Pizzagate and Frazzledrip lies at the level of social interaction and information science as opposed to psychiatric disorder. Conspiracy theories involve a negation of conventional explanations in favour of an alternative account featuring shadowy forces with malevolent intent. Therefore, mistrust—not clinical paranoia—is often the central feature of conspiracy theory belief.
QAnon conspiracy theories that, at their core, demonise left-wing liberals and “globalists” were born out of an emerging right-wing American populism and have come to be widely adopted within the Republican party. Appearing around the time of Clinton’s campaign against Donald Trump during the 2016 Presidential race, conspiracy theories like Pizzagate and Frazzledrip that maligned her were embraced because many viewed her as a literal enemy, just as the so-called “birthers” endorsed conspiracy theories about Barack Obama’s citizenship 8 years before. While mistrust can be earned, when it underlies conspiracy theory belief, it’s often fueled by prejudices of “othering” in the form of hyper-partisanship, racism, or misogyny.
Mistrust of others, and especially of authoritative sources of information, results in a vulnerability to misinformation that is widely available within today’s media landscape. When Edgar Maddison Welch decided to “self-investigate” Pizzagate armed with a rifle, he was misinformed by sources like Reddit and InfoWars that had presented the supposed “evidence” of Clinton’s guilt. Only later, when Welch was arrested, did he concede that “the intel on this wasn’t 100%.” Likewise, the purported “evidence” for Frazzledrip was widely claimed within YouTube videos back in 2018, despite the fact that no actual video of Clinton cutting off a child’s face ever existed.
The democratisation of knowledge in the modern era of online media has resulted in a ‘post-truth’ world in which ‘fake news’ has become a household word, but no one can agree on which information sources are to be trusted. Consequently, trust has largely become a matter of confirmation bias and motivated reasoning aligned with partisan identities, with little agreement about what constitutes objective evidence anymore.
Human beings are fond of myths that revere our heroes and demonise our enemies. We’re also fond of the self-deception that we think rationally and are always right. The reality is that we come to hold beliefs based on intuition, subjective experience, and faith in trusted sources of transmitted information, independent of veracity. It’s no coincidence that Pizzagate, Frazzledrip, and QAnon have been largely online phenomena that have flourished in an era of hyper-partisanship where the other side is regarded as a mortal enemy and existential threat. So long as that continues, conspiracy theories will continue to flourish.
Joseph Pierre, MD is a Health Sciences Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioural Sciences, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the Acting Chief of Mental Health Community Care Systems at the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System. His column titled Psych Unseen and published in Psychology Today draws from the perspectives of psychiatry, neuroscience, psychology, and evidence-based medicine to address timely topics related to mental illness, human behaviour, and how we come to hold popular and not-so-popular beliefs.