Six years ago, Peter McIndoe fell into character as the leader of the parody conspiracy theory called Birds Aren’t Real. On a whim, the now 24-year-old college dropout created a character who, at least publicly, espoused the belief that the US government murdered more than 12 billion birds between 1969 and 2001 and replaced them with robotic replicas designed to spy on the American people. McIndoe has purchased billboard space around the country, painted a van with his slogan and gone on a tour around the US, gathering tremendous attention and starting protests outside of Twitter headquarters in San Francisco and CNN in LA to demand that the media give serious attention to his self-proclaimed “Bird Truthers.”
At TED 2023 in Vancouver, McIndoe once again fell into character as he walked on stage to tout a handful of the core tenants of his movement: that birds sit on wires to recharge and that you never see baby pigeons because the factory only builds adult bird replicas (a fact he calls the “smoking gun”). But after spending half his talk in character, vehemently defending his conspiracy theory, McIndoe dropped the act and admitted, as he did in the 2021 New York Times article about his movement, that he did not, in fact, believe any of the things that he proclaimed.
It was a ruse that he started, at least initially, to grapple with the rise of conspiracy theories that he saw around him. McIndoe grew up in Arkansas, where he said he was surrounded by hyper-conservative and religious people who often espoused and subscribed to wild conspiracy theories. He based the character he built around the same cadence, arguments and fringe elements that he saw in the conspiracy theorists around him—and the movement took on a life of its own. As of the latest count, Birds Aren’t Real has more than 450,000 followers on Instagram, 111,000 followers on Twitter and 875,000 followers on TikTok—and McIndoe continues to sell apparel and make appearances in character at events like TED.
Despite its reach and virality, McIndoe said that the most surprising thing about his social experiment was that it showed just how hateful, angry and othering those who vehemently condemned the theory were. “There were hundreds, maybe thousands of instances over the years where strangers would approach me. They’d see me in public and walk up to me with complete disdain on their face,” he said during his TED Talk. “They thought that I was a real conspiracy theorist. And time and time again, they’d come up to me, look me right in the eyes, just as close as I am to you right here, and tell me how stupid I am. They’d tell me I was uneducated, that I was crazy, that I was the problem with this country. When this happened, I didn’t feel the emotions of the character that I thought I would. My out-of-character self may have interpreted these interactions as a funny response to someone that fell for the comedy project, but instead I felt the emotions of the character, I felt emboldened and I felt sad and angry.”
He said that his comedy project gave him a new point of view on conspiracy theories and how we as a society treat those on the fringe. “In those moments when those people were talking to me, their approach could not have been any more ineffective,” he said. “These experiences, hundreds of them over the years, watching how people interact with those in the fringes of our society, gave me an entirely new perspective on our approach to conspiracy theorists, whether it’s how we frame them and the conventional media, or how we deal with those in our own lives. If our goal is to live in a shared reality with our neighbors, what if our current approach isn’t bringing us any closer to that?”
When Chris Anderson, the curator of TED, asked McIndoe after his talk what he would suggest as a better approach, McIndoe answered, “We need new solutions for these problems,” noting that in order to fight conspiracy theorists, we need to identify what is missing from their lives, consider their circumstances and bring compassion to the table.
“We are manufacturing our own enemies,” he continued, and argued that collectively we need to find a way to invite these fringe elements into a new space and find a way to reduce loneliness, isolation and othering in order to find a productive way to acknowledge the crisis of belonging and more deeply understand the difference of beliefs.
While McIndoe began Birds Aren’t Real as a parody of extreme fringe groups that have cropped up in the current political climate, the lessons we can take from his creative work may yet help bring our broken country back together with compassion, understanding, patience and time.
Images of Peter McIndoe at SESSION 4 at TED2023: Possibility. April 17-21, 2023, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Gilberto Tadday / TED