What parody conspiracy theories like ‘Birds Aren’t Real’ tell us about gen Z’s perception of truth

By Emma O'Regan-Reidy

Published Mar 4, 2022 at 09:30 AM

Reading time: 3 minutes

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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.

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A post shared by Birds Aren't Real (@birdsarentreal)

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.

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A post shared by Birds Aren't Real (@birdsarentreal)

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.

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