There are two histories behind the Birds Aren’t Real movement. The group’s ”historical” account details a CIA plot in the 1960s to replace all birds with government drones to spy on American citizens. The story is filled with fake eyewitness accounts, Area 51, JFK’s assassination (a result of the president’s hesitancy to murder millions of birds) and goverment lies — all the ingredients of a classic conspiracy theory. But the real history of Birds Aren’t Real began in Memphis, Tennessee in 2017. The movement’s founder, Peter McIndoe, recently broke character for the first time for an interview with The New York Times.
McIndoe, a college student at the time, spontaneously wrote “Birds Aren’t Real” on a cardboard poster in reaction to pro-Trump protestors at the 2017 Women’s March. He quickly invented a backstory as to why birds were not real, and, unbeknownst to him, he was recorded and the video went viral. The phrase caught on, and McIndoe embraced the absurdity, further developing his conspiracy. As McIndoe put it, “It was a spontaneous joke, but it was a reflection of the absurdity everyone was feeling.”
The movement has continued to grow over the past five years. As internet conspiracy theories have spiraled out of control and become more interlinked with American politics, as we’ve seen with QAnon, Birds Aren’t Real feels like a safe space to process the insanity.
The ironic humor plays into many of the influences on the upbringing of Gen Z. The Birds Aren’t Real movement has always reminded me of Orwellian satire. When I read “1984” in middle school, the concept of “untruths” and “doublespeak” seemed like a dystopian fantasy. However, the Trump era saw White House advisor Kellyanne Conway wield “alternative facts”, and “fake news” became a prominent term used by both parties. While many used “fake news” to call out true misinformation, like President Trump’s claim of a rigged election, others manipulated the term to brand credible information as lies or propaganda.
With fake news of all kinds swamping news feeds, it can be difficult to distinguish true information from conspiracy theories. Birds Aren’t Real plays into this caricature and harkens back to the dystopian fiction many of us are familiar with, like “1984” or “The Handmaid’s Tale.” In a time struck with plague and growing authoritarianism, it can be scary to think that we are growing closer to the fiction we read. It can also be difficult to know what information to trust. Did Bush cause 9/11? Did Epstein really kill himself? What is Pizzagate? Who is Q?
In all of the chaos, I do know that birds are real. Thus, the movement stands alone as a positive truth I can return to when everything else is too convoluted. Birds Aren’t Real is also hilarious and satirical, perfectly harnessing Gen Z’s ironic sense of humor. Their merch, which is termed “Truther Gear,” includes phrases like “If it flies, it spies” and “The birds work for the bourgeoisie.” As Claire Chronis, a Birds Aren’t Real organizer in Pittsburgh, puts it, “The organization is fighting lunacy with lunacy.”
Birds Aren’t Real is an outlet so that people, especially young people, trying to process the insanity of modern politics and internet culture, can mock-engage in this culture rather than trying to block it all out or scream into the void. “By cosplaying conspiracy theorists, they have found community and kinship,” The Times said.
We all spend so much of our lives online and are deeply shaped by the culture of the internet. It is nearly impossible to steer clear of all misinformation, and studies have found that algorithms used on video platforms like YouTube perpetuate conspiracy theories, sending people deeper and deeper down rabbit holes without having to search for anything. These algorithms facilitate radicalization. It seems so bleak that a platform originally used to share cat videos has led to extremism and real-world violence.
While the solution to all of this insanity might point to quitting the internet entirely, that’s not a realistic option for most people. There are so many useful and good upsides to online communities and platforms, and Birds Aren’t Real is one of them. As Winston Smith, the protagonist of “1984,” says, “There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.” My advice: cling to the absurdity.
Annika Reff PO ’25 is from Los Angeles, California. She enjoys consuming an unhealthy amount of caffeine and listening to the soothing voice of Michael Barbaro.