Birds are a detail that some people pass by every day without taking a second glance at. They can sit in trees and sing pretty songs without causing any alarm. They are so inconspicuous in fact, that they could be watching and surveying without humans ever being aware. The idea of the Birds Aren’t Real movement is that birds are a method of government surveillance, and that they are not in fact real, living animals.
The Birds Aren’t Real joke conspiracy has been around from humble beginnings since 2017, when University of Memphis student Peter McIndoe attended the local Women’s March, creating his own sign, declaring that birds are government drones. When the meme started to pick up, he capitalized on merchandise and social media fame. The conspiracy has now morphed into a full-blown organization, with its own agenda to make it clear to the American public that the birds they encounter may be watching.
As the movement grew in 2018 and 2019, audios on TikTok were created to mock the statements, claiming that “All of the birds died in 1986 due to Reagan killing them and replacing them with government spies that are now watching us. The birds work for the bourgeoisie.” This sentiment has been adopted by the organization itself, as it has made “Birds Aren’t Real ’87” stickers and shirts with birds in trench coats “working for the bourgeoisie.”
Although the movement originated as a joke and an online meme, the organization has mobilized its message by holding rallies and selling merchandise. A white van with bird-deterrent spikes has gone to Kansas City, Dallas, San Francisco, Memphis, and other cities to publicize the seemingly ridiculous theory. According to the organizers themselves, it is sort of ridiculous.
The Birds Aren’t Real movement is supposed to be a joke, to poke fun the actual, terrifying conspiracies that do exist. In the modern political climate, many conspiracies have come to popular belief from QAnon to online forums that perpetuate misinformation. The internet has been a major proponent of conspiracies, and even though wild theories have been around like a fake moon landing or the CIA killing Kennedy, it is even more of an epidemic in the age of scrolling. To make light of how ridiculous some of these theories may seem, Birds Aren’t Real was born.
“I always thought it was really funny, but I definitely only saw it as a joke, never serious,” said Abigale Marta, UNC alum and birder.
New conspiracy theories have had a much larger audience because of constant contact through the internet. QAnon specifically creates a dangerous narrative of pedophilic elites seeking to take down former president Donald Trump. The conspiracy has grown into its own real-life political movement with terrible consequences such as the “Pizzagate” shooting in which an armed man stormed a pizza restaurant because he believed it was a cover for child-abusing democrats. There have also been conspiracies that downplay tragic and real events such as the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, claiming that many students and parents were crisis actors. These pieces of blatant misinformation cause harm to real people and can get more dangerous with more attention.
The internet especially targets youth, and the nature of social media is to tend to shorter attention spans, often not including a whole story but just the headline. Within social media, inside jokes and memes that play off real events can also develop, such as the Birds Aren’t Real movement. Teacher candidate Zoe Womble teaches in an American Government class, and especially sees these issues of media literacy among her students at Greeley Central High School.
“The growth in social media has become a problem, especially because it targets our youth. When I teach media bias in a high school classroom, I have to educate kids about doing their own research and reading beyond just a headline to get the most accurate information,” Womble said.
The issue that may arise with a joke like Birds Aren’t Real is the fact that some people take it too seriously. Real, terrifying conspiracies are created every day on the internet, and many readers take it at face value, without looking into sources and claims critically. This can be dangerous in a world where people have constant access to the internet, as they might not look in deeper. Conspiracy theories are going to come up no matter what, because humans are curious about what is truly in the world around them, so a joke one can provide less damage.
In order to mitigate some of the damage that might be caused by rumors that our flying friends are robots, the Audubon society, as well as many news organizations, have taken a closer look at the claims made by people who believe in the bird bourgeoise. Audubon has noted the danger in these claims, but also says that the movement can be seen as a joke by conservatives and liberals alike to bring us all together.
The Birds Aren’t Real movement and subsequent organization are one example of long-winded jokes on the internet, and just the tip of the iceberg of conspiracy theories that can grow to be dangerous. Although this movement has lighthearted intentions behind it, there can still be repercussions if misunderstood. More serious conspiracies can also be misunderstood and have dangerous and violent consequences. When people take these theories that are unsupported by facts and blow them out of proportion, others can suffer.