The CIA assassinated John F. Kennedy after he refused to kill and replace billions of birds with drones. The U.S. government is sequestering a team of Boeing engineers in Area 51 for a secret military mission. Our tax dollars have been funneled into building the “Turkey X500,” a robot used to hunt large birds.
Combine all these conspiracies and you get Birds Aren’t Real, a nearly two-year-old movement that claims the CIA took out 12 billion feathered fugitives because directors within the organization were “annoyed that birds had been dropping fecal matter on their car windows.” The targets were eradicated between 1959 and 1971 with specially altered B-52 bombers stocked with poison. They were then supplanted with avian-like robots that could be used to surveil Americans.
Sounds extreme but also somewhat fitting, given the landscape of today's social discourse. By surfacing murky bits of history and the ubiquity of Aves, Birds Aren’t Real feeds into this era of post-truth politics. The campaign relies on internet-fueled guerilla marketing to spread its message, manifesting through real-world posters and Photoshopped propaganda tagged with the “Birds Aren’t Real” slogan. For much of its devoted fanbase, Birds Aren’t Real is a respite from America’s political divide—a joke so preposterous both conservatives and liberals can laugh at it. But for a few followers, this movement is no more unbelievable than QAnon, a right-wing conspiracy theory turned marketing ploy that holds that someone with high-level government clearance is planting coded tips in the news. Therein lies the genius of Birds Aren’t Real: It’s a digital breadcrumb trail that leads to a website that leads to a shop full of ready-to-buy merchandise.
In January 2017, Mr. McIndoe traveled to Memphis to visit friends. Donald J. Trump had just been sworn in as president, and there was a women’s march downtown. Pro-Trump counterprotesters were also there. When Mr. McIndoe saw them ... he ripped a poster off a wall, flipped it over and wrote three random words: “Birds Aren’t Real.”
“It was a spontaneous joke, but it was a reflection of the absurdity everyone was feeling,” he said...
Mr. McIndoe decided to lean into Birds Aren’t Real. “I started embodying the character and building out the world this character belonged to,” he said. He and Connor Gaydos, a friend, wrote a false history of the movement, concocted elaborate theories and produced fake documents and evidence to support his wild claims.
“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.”
In 2018, Mr. McIndoe dropped out of college and moved to Memphis. To build Birds Aren’t Real further, he created a flyer that shot to the top of Reddit. He hired an actor to portray a former C.I.A. agent who confessed to working on bird drone surveillance; the video has more than 20 million views on TikTok. He also hired actors to represent adult bird truthers in videos that spread all over Instagram.
That same year, Mr. McIndoe began selling Birds Aren’t Real merchandise. The money, totaling several thousand dollars a month, helps Mr. McIndoe and Mr. Gaydos cover their living expenses.
“All the money from our merch lineup goes into making sure me and Connor can do this full time,” Mr. McIndoe said. “We also put the money into the billboards, flying out members of the Bird Brigade to rallies. None of the proceeds go to anything harmful.”
In September, shortly after a restrictive new abortion law went into effect in Texas, Birds Aren’t Real members showed up at a protest held by anti-abortion activists at the University of Cincinnati. Supporters of the new law “had signs with very graphic imagery and were very aggressive in condemning people,” Mr. McIndoe said. “It led to arguments.”
But the Bird Brigade began chanting, “Birds aren’t real.” Their shouts soon overpowered the anti-abortion activists, who left.
Mr. McIndoe now has big plans for 2022. Breaking character is necessary to help Birds Aren’t Real leap to the next level and forswear actual conspiracy theorists, he said. He added that he hoped to collaborate with major content creators and independent media like Channel 5 News, which is aimed at helping people make sense of America’s current state and the internet.
“I have a lot of excitement for what the future of this could be as an actual force for good,” he said. “Yes, we have been intentionally spreading misinformation for the past four years, but it’s with a purpose. It’s about holding up a mirror to America in the internet age.”