Green bird whose head is a camera

Credit: Getty Images


Birds aren't real*

* They're definitely real, but just go with it for the sake of this Q+A about a nonsensical movement led by Peter McIndoe, who headlines the SNF Agora Institute's Democracy and Freedom Festival on Feb. 8

You've likely seen the bumper stickers:




These slogans promote Birds Aren't Real, a satirical conspiracy group claiming the U.S. government wiped out all birds and replaced them with lookalike drones for surveillance purposes. If that sounds preposterous, it's because it is. Proponents of Birds Aren't Real know the conspiracy is a joke but continue to spread its gospel and build on its lore. Bird poop on your windshield? That's actually a liquid tracking apparatus. Roadkill? Don't assume all robots are made from chrome and wires. That pet parakeet in your living room? Better have sensitive conversations elsewhere.

Democracy and Freedom Festival
Elijah E. Cummings Democracy and Freedom Festival 2024

The SNF Agora Institute brings together scholars, practitioners, and the local community on Feb. 8 to grapple with some of the most urgent challenges facing democracy, model civic engagement across divides, and celebrate democratic resilience and opportunity

Birds Aren't Real started in 2017, when then-college student Peter McIndoe was visiting a friend in Nashville. In the wake of President Donald Trump's election, women's marches exploded across the country, and McIndoe felt uneasy as he watched counter-protestors in MAGA hats attempt to disrupt the Nashville march. As an antidote to the chaos, McIndoe scrawled "birds aren't real" on a piece of cardboard—the most nonsensical thing he could think of—and joined the fray. When people asked questions, he improvised a history for the movement and inadvertently made history himself. Footage of him at the protest went viral, and what began as an exasperated joke spawned a collective of zoomers and millennials coping with misinformation through satirical roleplay. They hold rallies, erect billboards, and try to find humor and community in a world where truth is dangerously pliable. In turn, they've demonstrated just how easy it is to perpetuate conspiracies.

Peter McIndoe

Image caption: Peter McIndoe

In 2022, McIndoe broke character, revealing the movement to be a farce. In doing so, he expressed a desire to use his profile to combat misinformation and rethink how we approach friends and relatives who have fallen for conspiracies.

As part of these efforts, McIndoe is the keynote speaker at the SNF Agora Institute's Elijah E. Cummings Democracy and Freedom Festival 2024, where he'll be giving a talk at 1:30 p.m. EST this Thursday, Feb. 8, at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, 830 E. Pratt Street, Baltimore; registration required.

The Hub caught up with him beforehand to learn more about his novel approach to activism and how it relates to the theme of this year's festival: civic education.

How does the ethos of your movement fit into the festival's theme?

Birds Aren't Real asks us to shift our understanding of how to communicate with people who believe conspiracies by understanding those theories as being more about belonging than belief. It's less about the truth or what people believe in, but more so what draws them to their beliefs in the first place and what they're getting out of them.

The movement also asks us to consider how to educate people about media literacy. It seems right now that a lot of what we're doing in that realm is pretty ineffective, especially in middle America, where I'm from. With the rise of AI, it's even more important.

What do you think people get out of believing conspiracy theories?

I'm from Arkansas, so when I think about what draws people to conspiracies, I think about some of the people I grew up around. I wonder what they're actually getting out of [conspiracy theories] that draws them to be in their basement on internet forums all day, conversing about, say, Democrats eating babies. And I had a few thoughts, the main one being that believing in a conspiracy theory or joining a group like that is a shortcut to getting a sense of identity, a purpose in life, and a group to belong to. Everyone is telling themselves a story about how they're doing in their own life. Am I a victim? Am I a hero? What's my life's story? And I think through tweaking the probability meter in your brain, you can convince yourself of a reality where everything is dystopian and evil—if you're Q Anon, for example, you might decide baby-eating Democrats are trying to brainwash the public. Letting people know [your beliefs] moves you from a victim to a hero in the story you're telling yourself. So the main answer to that question would be [that people are looking for] community, purpose, and identity—three of the most fundamental and basic things people need to survive and be OK.

A young man wearing a white cowboy hat sits atop a white van; on the van is written

Image credit: Courtesy Peter McIndoe

It's interesting that the people who have latched onto the Birds aren't Real movement, who are mostly Gen Z and millennials, have also found a sense of community and purpose, but it's much healthier and less toxic.

Which is cool. It shows there are better ways to find a sense of purpose and community.

I also think that the largest demographic that believes in conspiracy theories are older men, who may have a hard time finding connection and friendship and are lonely. A shortcut to being on the same team as another older man is sharing the same politics or belief system, something that doesn't require a lot of emotional nuance—and it's an easy thing to find on the internet. And then instantly, almost like a religion, you have a large community that supports you, that you share a mission with.

People now have access to more tribes than they've ever had in their hometown. There are suddenly more communities available to you than those you share close proximity with. The core of it is people looking just to feel like they belong—which, hey, I'm looking for the exact same thing, but I think there are healthy and unhealthy ways to do that.

But also, a large part of [conspiracy susceptibility] is just internet-era media literacy. Every day, we're probably seeing something online that's not true. There's a shift happening: People used to say, "Don't trust everything you see on the internet," but now I feel like it's a rule of thumb to not trust anything you see.

Growing up in a predominantly conservative town in Arkansas, were there any conspiracy theories that you were exposed to and, because you were a kid and didn't know better, believed in?

The main conspiracy theory was that the public school system and Common Core school curriculum were designed to brainwash kids into believing in evolution or that homosexuality is OK. There were hundreds of parents in Little Rock that were keeping their kids out of school. I was educated in a homeschool community, a kind of co-op situation in Arkansas—very cult-ish, honestly. Some other parents didn't want their kids to get vaccinated, and that would need to happen to get into a public school. I was always vaccinated—my family wasn't part of that. But there were a bunch of conspiracy theories, and with a lot of them, I found that there was no direct malicious intent. People genuinely thought they were doing the right thing and protecting their children, and, as a result, believed these lies. Growing up, I got to see how if enough people believe something is true, then it warps the whole meaning of truth.

But to answer your question, I didn't really believe conspiracy theories myself. I had access to the internet, and it did the opposite thing for me than it does for some conspiracy theorists—I just found the truth on the internet. But if I didn't have the internet, who knows? Would I still be in Arkansas right now?

Fake colorful birds standing on tree with blur foliage bokeh

Image caption: These particular birds are actually not real.

Image credit: blanscape / Getty Images

Did being a part of the Birds Aren't Real movement give you any ideas for combating misinformation, and do you feel like it's even possible at this point to delegitimize some of the larger conspiracy movements in the U.S.?

The short answer is I don't know how to solve misinformation or how to combat it at a large scale. I was just at the hearing in D.C. a couple days ago with all the CEOs talking about child safety, and even the government can't really get these companies to protect people, and I don't think [the government] even knows what to do. So where does that leave the average person? We have to ask ourselves, "What can I control?" And one thing we can control is how we treat people in our own lives. And I think that's why I'm passionate about reframing our approach to conspiracy theories, centering it more on belonging than belief. Because at the end of the day, if you're debating the truth, it's never going to work. If you go up to someone and say, "Hey, that's not true. You need to educate yourself and do better research," they're not going to leave their entire community and sense of self, but that's how a lot of people approach those conversations. Instead, we need to encourage people to go into different spaces. This is something I think I said in a talk once, but a metaphor I find helpful is that it's really hard to convince someone they're in a dark room after their eyes have already adjusted. The best thing to do is turn on a light. Seeing that contrast is what's actually going to convince someone.

I also think satire is important. Laughing at something can draw a certain light to it to combat it in a different way. Sometimes you need to combat lunacy with lunacy.

What are you planning to do next? Are you going to continue with this movement and continue to build on the lore of it, or do you see your career pivoting in another direction?

Our book, which is written totally in-character and very goofy, comes out with McMillan in June, and we're working on the Birds Aren't Real movie, but I am going to be moving on from Birds Aren't Real. After last year, there was kind of just a finality with the project. I held my last rally and then did a TED Talk and was like, OK, that feels like [the end]. But the movement and the people online are still very passionate about it, and we get new followers and people interacting every day, so I'm handing it off to another person who's going to take the mantle of public information officer. His name is Dan Henshaw. I have total faith in him, and I'm excited to see what he does with it.