When Arkansas native turned Memphis resident Peter McIndoe invented the Birds Aren't Real conspiracy theory in January 2017 — the month of former President Donald Trump's inauguration — he was making fun of far-right conspiracy theorists. It was an exercise in political satire; McIndoe, now 23, was mocking the type of MAGA Republicans who listen to listen to Alex Jones' "Infowars" and embrace Pizzagate and other ludicrous conspiracy theories. But Birds Aren't Real caught on, and according to The Guardian's Zoe Williams, some conspiracy theorists on the far right actually take it seriously.
Birds Aren't Real claims that the "Deep State" killed off all of the real birds in the United States and replaced them with drones that are made to look like birds — and the drones are being used to spy on Americans. McIndoe never really believed that, but he found that some far-right conspiracy theorists took him seriously and believed that all the birds flying around were drones.
McIndoe, Williams notes, unveiled his Birds Aren't Real claims at a rally in Memphis in January 2017.
"Someone was filming him and put it on Facebook," Williams explains. "It went viral, and Memphis is still the center of the Birds Aren't Real movement. Or is it a movement? You could call it a situationist spectacle, a piece of rolling performance art or a collective satire. MSNBC called it a 'mass coping mechanism' for Generation Z, and as it has hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, 'mass,' at least, is on the money."
The audience for far-right conspiracy theories only grew during Trump's four years in the White House, from QAnon to the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. And according to Williams, Birds Aren't Real is "the most perfect, playful distillation of where we are in relation to the media landscape we've built but can't control, and which only half of us can find our way around."
"It's a made-up conspiracy theory that is just realistic enough, as conspiracies go, to convince QAnon supporters that birds aren't real, but has just enough satirical flags that Generation Z recognizes immediately what is going on," Williams observes. "It's a conspiracy-within-a-conspiracy, a little aneurysm of reality and mockery in the bloodstream of the mad Pizzagate-style theories that animate the 'alt-right.'"
McIndoe recalls that he was shocked by how quickly Birds Aren't Real caught on.
The Arkansas native/Memphis resident told The Guardian, "I remember seeing videos of people chanting: 'Birds aren't real,' at high-school football games, and seeing graffiti of birds aren't real. At first, I thought: 'This is crazy,' but then I wondered: 'What is making this resonate with people?'…. Teenagers understand it, they don't need footnote."
McIndoe himself isn't a MAGA Republican or a far-right Christian nationalist; he was a Bernie Sanders supporter in 2016. But he grew up around evangelical Christian fundamentalists in a rural area of Arkansas, and Birds Aren't Real was his way of mocking the far right — even though some conspiracy theorists took it seriously.
"Real conspiracy theorists will approach me like I'm their brother, like I'm part of their team," McIndoe told The Guardian. "They will start spouting hateful rhetoric and racist ideas, because they feel as if I'm safe."
McIndoe doesn't believe that the demand for far-right conspiracy theorists will be going away anytime soon. In fact, he believes the worst is yet to come.
"I don't think the madness is going to necessarily end," McIndoe told The Guardian. "I think the lunacy is going to become more intense."