In early 2017, Peter McIndoe, now 23, was studying psychology at the University of Arkansas, and visiting friends in Memphis, Tennessee. He tells me this over Zoom from the US west coast, and has the most arresting face – wide-eyed, curious and intense, like the lead singer of an indie band, or a young monk. “This was right after the Donald Trump election, and things were really tense. I remember people walking around saying they felt as if they were in a movie. Things felt so unstable.”
It was the weekend of simultaneous Women’s Marches across the US (indeed, the world), and McIndoe looked out of the window and noticed “counterprotesters, who were older, bigger white men. They were clear aggravators. They were encroaching on something that was not their event, they had no business being there.” Added to that, “it felt like chaos, because the world felt like chaos”.
McIndoe made a placard, and went out to join the march. “It’s not like I sat down and thought I’m going to make a satire. I just thought: ‘I should write a sign that has nothing to do with what is going on.’ An absurdist statement to bring to the equation.”
That statement was “birds aren’t real”. As he stood with the counterprotesters, and they asked what his sign meant, he improvised. He said he was part of a movement that had been around for 50 years, and was originally started to save American birds, but had failed. The “deep state” had destroyed them all, and replaced them with surveillance drones. Every bird you see is actually a tiny feathered robot watching you.
Someone was filming him and put it on Facebook; it went viral, and Memphis is still the centre 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.
It’s 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 recognises immediately what is going on. 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”.
Birds Aren’t Real didn’t stay in Memphis – in a sequence reminiscent of the Winklevoss scene in The Social Network, when they realise just how big Facebook has become, McIndoe recalls being back at college, five hours away from Memphis. “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?’”