Birds are Fake. I Saw it on the Internet.

December 10, 2021

I knew that. All along.

New York Times:

In Pittsburgh, Memphis and Los Angeles, massive billboards recently popped up declaring, “Birds Aren’t Real.”

On Instagram and TikTok, Birds Aren’t Real accounts have racked up hundreds of thousands of followers, and YouTube videos about it have gone viral.

Last month, Birds Aren’t Real adherents even protested outside Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco to demand that the company change its bird logo.

The events were all connected by a Gen Z-fueled conspiracy theory, which posits that birds don’t exist and are really drone replicas installed by the U.S. government to spy on Americans. Hundreds of thousands of young people have joined the movement, wearing Birds Aren’t Real T-shirts, swarming rallies and spreading the slogan.

It might smack of QAnon, the conspiracy theory that the world is controlled by an elite cabal of child-trafficking Democrats. Except that the creator of Birds Aren’t Real and the movement’s followers are in on a joke: They know that birds are, in fact, real and that their theory is made up.

What Birds Aren’t Real truly is, they say, is a parody social movement with a purpose. In a post-truth world dominated by online conspiracy theories, young people have coalesced around the effort to thumb their nose at, fight and poke fun at misinformation. It’s Gen Z’s attempt to upend the rabbit hole with absurdism.

“It’s a way to combat troubles in the world that you don’t really have other ways of combating,” said Claire Chronis, 22, a Birds Aren’t Real organizer in Pittsburgh. “My favorite way to describe the organization is fighting lunacy with lunacy.”

At the center of the movement is Peter McIndoe, 23, a floppy-haired college dropout in Memphis who created Birds Aren’t Real on a whim in 2017. For years, he stayed in character as the conspiracy theory’s chief believer, commanding acolytes to rage against those who challenged his dogma. But now, Mr. McIndoe said in an interview, he is ready to reveal the parody lest people think birds really are drones.

Most Birds Aren’t Real members, many of whom are part of an on-the-ground activism network called the Bird Brigade, grew up in a world overrun with misinformation. Some have relatives who have fallen victim to conspiracy theories. So for members of Gen Z, the movement has become a way to collectively grapple with those experiences. By cosplaying conspiracy theorists, they have found community and kinship, Mr. McIndoe said.

“Birds Aren’t Real is not a shallow satire of conspiracies from the outside. It is from the deep inside,” he said. “A lot of people in our generation feel the lunacy in all 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 is involved in Birds Aren’t Real, said the parody “makes you stop for a second and laugh. In a uniquely bleak time to come of age, it doesn’t hurt to have something to laugh about together.”

Mr. McIndoe, too, marinated in conspiracies. For his first 18 years, he grew up in a deeply conservative and religious community with seven siblings outside Cincinnati, then in rural Arkansas. He was home-schooled, taught that “evolution was a massive brainwashing plan by the Democrats and Obama was the Antichrist,” he said.

He read books like “Remote Control,” about what it said were hidden anti-Christianity messages from Hollywood. In high school, social media offered a gateway to mainstream culture. Mr. McIndoe began watching Philip DeFranco and other popular YouTubers who talked about current events and pop culture, and went on Reddit to find new viewpoints.

“I was raised by the internet, because that’s where I ended up finding a lot of my actual real-world education, through documentaries and YouTube,” Mr. McIndoe said. “My whole understanding of the world was formed by the internet.”

“It basically became an experiment in misinformation,” Mr. McIndoe said. “We were able to construct an entirely fictional world that was reported on as fact by local media and questioned by members of the public.”

Mr. Gaydos added, “If anyone believes birds aren’t real, we’re the last of their concerns, because then there’s probably no conspiracy they don’t believe.”

My own looking-glass experience in the world of reality denial was underlined recently, when I produced a video showing how the massive resources aimed at destroying confidence in science and fact, over the last 30 years, have contributed to our current loss of consensus reality.
Ironically, because the video contains footage of leading purveyors of unreality, it tripped Youtube’s algorithm somehow and ended up in YouTube Jail.

To watch it, you’ll have to prove that you’re a consenting adult.

6 Responses to “Birds are Fake. I Saw it on the Internet.”

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      As someone with quite a personal collection of neuroses (atypical fixations/obsession, aversions, fears, my rage response), I tend to see “cranks” as needing cognitive therapy and/or light psychoactive meds to help build self-awareness and control.

      Some seem to have spiraled into obsession/certainty on their own (an indicator for meds?), and others have been preprogrammed by their upbringing or choice of media (cognitive therapy, at the minimum).

      I’m a big, big fan of teaching cognitive awareness to kids as young as possible. Too many “adults” go through life unaware of how they’re being manipulated by their emotions and outside agents.

  1. Peter Scheffler Says:

    I’d heard of this but hadn’t known these details. Thanks. What a hoot, so to speak!

    Somehow, thinking about this led me to thinking about the presumably serious premise that everything is actually a computer simulation (also something I have heard about but haven’t tried to study). If the creators of the simulation are actually still around and observing it, they must be incredulous at the absurdities of the science deniers. They must be wondering how their logical programming of the simulation has led to the current situation.

    • jimbills Says:

      I’m not a huge fan of the theory, but if there was a simulation, and if there were creators, they’d be stupid not to realize why this sort of thing happens. They would have programmed the reasoning ability of humans – which leads directly to outcomes like this.

      We’re intensely limited in our abilities to experience everything, and we ‘learn’ more from social interaction than we do by actual personal experience. A social group can believe amazingly wrong things – and pretty much every human social group believes in at least a few very wrong things (of course, we always believe our group is the one group in history that is absolutely correct).

      Cohesive social groups, whatever they believe, function more effectively. What the internet is doing is essentially forming new social groups and fracturing old ones. It’s a big mess. QAnon and like groups are examples. I personally think it’s going to get much worse.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      Everything we “experience” is through a model of highly-processed inputs from the physical world. Our brains learn to build 2-D and 3-D models of the objects around based on a combination of inputs from senses and improvements on earlier, cruder models.

      People tend to think of vision, for example, like a camera. Instead humans start with a very flawed and ad hoc “design” of human eyes:
      – cone cells that pick a [largely] shared sensitivity to certain bandwidths (if you aren’t colorblind or are a woman with that X-linked red cone mutation)
      – a vertebrate’s eye blind spot (where the optic nerve passes through the layout of the cones and rods)
      – only a tiny pit of the human retina (fovea) is high resolution compared to the rest of the retina (in high-flying raptors the fovea is larger and more elaborate)

      Then comes the post-processing of the visual input, which is “displayed” across the visual cortex (along the back of the brain) via three different processing paths (movement detection, spatial resolution, color refinement*).

      Then comes the “creative” part, where humans start applying pattern recognition across the biomechanically-generated image. It turns out that expectation has a very strong influence on what we see. Movie makers and magicians (and lobbyists) take full advantage of this bias. This is where bigotry or fear or simplistic thinking takes part.
      ___________
      *Rod inputs tell us whether we’re detecting colors in low-light conditions.

      • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

        The ear has a similar breakdown of sensory input and different levels of post-processing and interpretation tricks (cocktail party filtering in the left brain, multiple levels of language phoneme and verbal processing, etc.). [I’m more familiar with visual input issues from a Machine Vision and Manipulation artificial intelligence course I took a million years ago.]


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