Article Lead Image

SXSW 2022: What’s next for Birds Aren’t Real founder Peter McIndoe?

'We made it so that if you dig 2 inches deep you could see what it is.'


Mariam Sharia

Internet Culture

Posted on Mar 15, 2022   Updated on Mar 30, 2022, 1:48 pm CDT

“Who has seen a baby pigeon before?” BuzzFeed anchor Zach Stafford asked the audience at the SXSW conference Monday afternoon during his panel discussion with Peter McIndoe, the 23-year-old mastermind behind Birds Aren’t Real (BAR).

(“OK, one person,” Stafford quipped, after an audience member raised their hand. “That’s deep state.”) 

For those unfamiliar: Birds Aren’t Real is a satirical conspiracy-theory-turned-political-movement McIndoe founded spontaneously in 2017. It posits that all birds in the U.S. were killed in the ‘50s and replaced by government surveillance drones that spy on citizens. It all began when McIndoe, then a college student, found himself at a women’s march in Memphis where Pro-Trump counter-protesters were making noise. On a whim, he wrote the words “Birds Aren’t Real” on the back of a poster, marched around yelling “Birds aren’t real!,” got taped, and went viral on Facebook (where else?). A movement was born. Many people are in on the joke. Many are not.  

As BAR’s founder and main acolyte, McIndoe has cosplayed someone he is not for years. But he spoke as himself at the Austin conference—after inexplicably walking out to a bagpipe player—to reveal what’s next for the social movement. 

He used the metaphor of an igloo.

“The igloo is the concept of taking the same material that is causing the chaos and creating shelter out of it,” McIndoe explained. He said that cosplaying the sorts of extreme, right-wing personalities commonly found in legitimate conspiracy-centric social movements such as Pizzagate and its progeny QAnon offers a sort of catharsis. 

Role-playing the bad guy helps transform him into a “Looney Tunes cartoon character more to be laughed at than scared by.” Aping a conspiracy theorist is “therapeutic”—it allows McIndoe to have a safe space, or an “igloo,” in which to process the often-hateful and violent behaviors of those he’s mocking. And in doing so, he and hundreds of thousands of other Birds Aren’t Real members (many of whom belong to a political activism network called the Bird Brigade) are able to empathize “helpfully, and with boundaries.”

To extend the igloo metaphor, Stafford asked, what does it look like when the sun comes out, the blizzard stops, and it’s safe to come out of the igloo? 

It looks like stepping inside of the painting and being a part of it, rather than just looking on in horror. It’s empathizing, even though trying to understand bigotry is difficult. It’s being the bigger person. “To diffuse and solve these problems, getting in these peoples’ heads is crucial,” McIndoe explains. He’s uniquely suited for the position, having been homeschooled in a “rural, hyper-conservative, religious community” in Arkansas where the local pastor told him he was possessed by demons after he said he didn’t believe in God.

Stepping out of the igloo looks like drowning out hatred with lunacy. The Bird Brigade is already a political force, showing up to high-stress scenarios such as anti-abortion rallies and shouting “Birds aren’t real” until the activists leave. “I am very fascinated and excited by what we could do in the counter-protesting space using comedy to defuse tension,” McIndoe says.    

It looks like figuring out a better way to exist as a human in this country. On a systemic level, the United States isn’t—and has never been—built to prioritize “identity, purpose, and community.” These are three things that all of us struggle to find (“Frankly, I am too,” says McIndoe), but what’s unique about bird truthers and conspiracy theorists in general is that they find those things in legitimately harmful, hateful communities.

It looks like the media doing a better job of researching and fact-checking in order to fight the sort of misinformation that allowed for the rise of groups like QAnon in the first place. McIndoe explained how after it went viral, a half dozen outlets reported on BAR as a legitimate movement despite the fact that “if you dig for a minute, you could tell instantly it’s a joke.”

“We made it so that if you dig 2 inches deep you could see what it is,” he explained. “But that was really revealing about the media: they can’t even dig 2 inches.” 

Stepping out of the igloo after five years means breaking character, working with other content creators to amplify exposure, and rejecting bird truthers not in on the joke. “We have been intentionally spreading misinformation for the last five years,” McIndoe said. “But there is a point.”      

“The ultimate goal of that was to take this scary monster idea, the conspiracy theorist, these people that do this harm in our society, and kind of laugh at it rather than be overcome by it.”

By the way: McIndoe loves birds. “I want that on the record,” he said, several minutes before the bagpipe player returned to play him off the stage. “I think they’re so cool.”

And no, he’s never seen a baby pigeon.

Share this article
*First Published: Mar 15, 2022, 3:24 pm CDT