NEW YORK - Huge billboards have recently appeared in Pittsburgh, Memphis and Los Angeles declaring, "The birds aren't real."
On Instagram and TikTok, Birds Aren't Real accounts have amassed hundreds of thousands of followers, and YouTube videos about them have gone viral.
Last month, Birds Aren't Real supporters even protested outside Twitter headquarters in San Francisco to demand that the company change its logo, which features a bird.
All these events are related to a conspiracy theory promoted by generation Z, which maintains that the birds do not exist and that they are actually replica drones 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, attending rallies and spreading the slogan.
It might smack of QAnon, the conspiracy theory that the world is controlled by an elite of child-trafficking Democrats. Except that the creator of Birds Aren't Real and the followers of the movement are in on a joke: they know that the birds are, in fact, real and that their theory is made up.
What Birds Aren't Real really is, they say, is a parody social movement with a purpose. In the post-truth world dominated by online conspiracy theories, young people have rallied around this effort to criticize, combat and mock disinformation. It's Gen Z's attempt to break down the rabbit hole with absurdity.
“It's a way to fight problems in the world that you can't fight any other way,” said Claire Chronis, 22, an organizer with Birds Aren't Real in Pittsburgh. "My favorite way to describe the organization is fighting madness with madness."
At the center of the movement is Peter McIndoe, 23, a straight-haired college dropout in Memphis who created Birds Aren't Real on a whim in 2017. For years, he stayed in character as the main believer in the conspiracy theory and ordered acolytes to fly into a rage against those who challenged their dogma. But now, McIndoe said in an interview, he's willing to reveal the spoof so people don't think the birds are actually drones.
“In dealing with the world of misinformation over the past few years, we have been very conscious of the line we are treading,” he said. “The idea is intended to be very absurd, but we make sure that nothing we say is too realistic. That's something to keep in mind as you get out of character."
Most of the members of Birds Aren't Real, many of whom are part of a ground-based activism network called the Birds Brigade, grew up in a world plagued by misinformation. Some have relatives who have fallen victim to conspiracy theories. Therefore, for members of generation Z, the movement has become a way to collectively face these experiences. By disguising themselves as conspiracy theorists, they have found a community and an affinity, McIndoe said.
“Birds Aren't Real is not a superficial satire of conspiracies from the outside. It is a satire from the depths,” he said. "A lot of people in our generation feel the madness in all of this, and Birds Aren't Real has been a way for people to process that."
Cameron Kasky, 21, an activist from Parkland, Fla., who helped organize the March for Our Lives student protest against gun violence in 2018 and participates in Birds Aren't Real, said the parody "makes you stop for a second." and laugh. In a uniquely bleak time of coming of age, it doesn't hurt to have something to laugh about together."
McIndoe, too, has been steeped in conspiracies. During his first 18 years, he grew up with seven siblings in a deeply conservative and religious community outside of Cincinnati, and later in rural Arkansas. He was homeschooled and taught that "evolution was a massive brainwashing plan by the Democrats and that Obama was the antichrist," he said.
He read books like Remote Control, about, the book argues, hidden anti-Christian messages from Hollywood. In high school, social media offered him a gateway to mainstream culture. McIndoe started watching Philip DeFranco and other popular YouTubers talking about current affairs and pop culture, and took to Reddit to find new points of view.
"I was raised on the internet, because that's where I ended up getting a lot of my real education, through documentaries and YouTube," McIndoe said. “My entire understanding of the world was shaped by the internet.”
When McIndoe left his home to go to the University of Arkansas in 2016, he said, he realized he wasn't the only young man forced to straddle multiple realities.
So 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. There were also pro-Trump counter-protesters. When McIndoe saw them, he said he, he tore a poster off a wall, turned it over and wrote a few random words: "The birds are not real."
"It was a spontaneous joke, but it was a reflection of the absurdity that everyone felt," he said.
So McIndoe started walking, and in the meantime he cobbled together the basis for the Birds Aren't Real conspiracy. He said he was part of a larger movement that believed the birds had been replaced by surveillance drones and that the cover-up started in the 1970s. Unbeknownst to him, he was filmed and the video was posted on Facebook. It went viral, especially among teenagers in the American South.
In Memphis, it didn't take long for “Birds Aren't Real” graffiti to appear. Photos of the phrase scrawled on chalkboards and walls of local high schools surfaced. People made Birds Aren't Real stickers.
McIndoe decided to embrace Birds Aren't Real. “I started to embody the character and build the world that he belonged in,” he said. He and Connor Gaydos, a friend, wrote a bogus history of the movement, invented elaborate theories, and produced bogus documents and evidence to support their wild claims.
"It basically became a disinformation experiment," McIndoe said. "We were able to build a totally fictional world that was reported as fact by the local media and questioned by the public."
Gaydos added: "If someone believes the birds aren't real, we're the least of their worries, because then there probably isn't any conspiracy they don't believe in."
In 2018, McIndoe dropped out of college and moved to Memphis. To take Birds Aren't Real further, he created a flyer that very quickly rose to the top of Reddit. He hired an actor to play a former CIA agent who confessed to working on bird drone surveillance; the video has over 20 million views on TikTok. He also hired actors to portray conspiracy-themed adults about birds in videos that spread all over Instagram.
That same year, McIndoe began selling Birds Aren't Real merchandise. The money, which adds up to several thousand dollars a month, helps McIndoe and Gaydos cover their daily expenses.
“All of the money from our merchandise line goes towards making sure that Connor and I can do this full time,” McIndoe said. “We also allocate the money to billboards and to pay for plane tickets for members of the Bird Brigade to rallies. None of the proceeds go to anything harmful.”
To adults concerned about McIndoe's tactics, investigators tell them the damage is likely to be minimal.
"You have to weigh the possible negative effects with any of these things, but in this case it's extremely small," said Joshua Citarella, an independent researcher who studies internet culture and online radicalization of young people. "Allowing people to participate in building a collaborative world is therapeutic because it allows them to disarm conspiracy and participate in a safe way."
McIndoe said he had these concerns on his mind. "Everything we've done with Birds Aren't Real is meant to make sure it's not headed in a direction that could have a negative bottom line in the world," he said. “It's a safe space for people to come together and process how conspiracy is taking over America. It's a way of laughing at madness instead of giving in to it."
The effort has been cathartic for young people like Heitho Shipp, 22, who lives in Pittsburgh.
"Most conspiracy theories are fueled by hatred or mistrust of a powerful leader, but this is about finding a way out of our discomfort," he said. He added that the movement was "more about media literacy."
Members of Birds Aren't Real have also become a political force. Many often join counter-protesters and outright conspiracy theorists to de-escalate tensions and delegitimize the people they march with with irreverent chants.
In September, shortly after a restrictive new abortion law went into effect in Texas, members of Birds Aren't Real showed up at a protest organized by anti-abortion activists at the University of Cincinnati. Supporters of the new law "had posters with very graphic images and were very aggressive in condemning people," McIndoe said. "That led to discussions."
But the Bird Brigade began to chant: "Birds are not real." Their cries soon overwhelmed the anti-abortion activists, who left.
McIndoe now has big plans for 2022. Getting out of character is necessary to help Birds Aren't Real go to the next level and back down from the real conspiracy theorists, he said. He added that he hoped to collaborate with major content creators and independent outlets like Channel 5 News, whose goal is to help people understand the current state of America and the internet.
"I'm very excited about what the future of this could be as a real force for good," he said. “Yes, we have been intentionally spreading disinformation for the last four years, but it is for a purpose. It is about putting a mirror in front of the United States in the Internet age.”
New York Times