An American Reality and a Fake Conspiracy
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – The camera turns on: brows furrowed, hands clenched, posters are lifted and waved furiously. While political endorsements simmer in the background, a tall, lean man approaches the scene equipped his own posture of political discourse: birds aren’t real. These are not actors, and this is not a set. This is the Women’s March in downtown Memphis, Tenn., and filming a satirical video, Peter McIndoe, 20, has prepared his character and controversy.
“I’d always wanted to go to a rally and hold up a poster that had nothing to do with what the rally was about,” McIndoe explained. His goal of rallying a pointless propaganda had come to life with a sharpie marker and the back of a poster that advertised a local theater production.
Birds Aren’t Real is a fake conspiracy theory invented by Arkansas native McIndoe, who pushes the idea that since 2001 the U.S. government has replaced birds with drones in order to spy on Americans. Although the idea of birds being drones could seem dramatized, McIndoe’s mass audience does not seem to care. It’s a joke that thousands of people are in on.
While the former UA student enthralls his audience with enthusiasm and radical statements such as the claim that birds are “Obama-drones” sent by “Killary Clinton,” he also serves his own creative aptitude by expressing his interpretation of America’s current political era.
The parodic conspiracy was invented by McIndoe after a day spent waving his controversy like a flag around the Women’s March in 2017. The march itself had no coincidence to McIndoe’s motives of disruption.
January 21, the day of the march, not only marks the birth of this conspiracy but also the date McIndoe’s friend group of seven came to be. The friends still refer to it as Birds Day, said Madeline Houston, McIndoe’s girlfriend.
“We didn’t know the Women’s March was that day so we just kind of stumbled upon it,” Houston said. At the top of a parking deck, where they first saw the march begin, the group gathered around a car hood and created their first Birds Aren’t Real artifact.
When he arrived at the march with the slogan in hand, many of the marchers were confused by his message, Houston said, laughing. While the group began protesting birds, a friend was recording a video of Peter in character as a radical conspiracist.
“It was just a fun day, and then it blew up,” Ray Schillawski, 20, said. Schillawski was another witness to Birds Day.
Three months after the march, the joke was still relevant among the friend group. McIndoe created social media accounts for Birds Aren’t Real and began posting consistently to keep traction on the concept. After a few thousand followers picked up, there was a demand for merchandise to represent this newfound meme. Borrowing a friend’s vinyl cutter to make 20 stickers and printing logos onto some plain t-shirts, McIndoe and Schillawski realized there was a business behind the joke.
“It’s kind of evolved into what it is,” Schillawski said. “I mean, 20 stickers isn’t a lot, but it was something to validate the idea, and we knew we didn’t have much time before it died out so we needed to feed the flame.”
McIndoe describes the “Birds Aren’t Real guy” as a parody of the average patriotic zealot. “The character itself is a satire of this radical partisanship that we’re experiencing every day,” he said. “It’s meant to put a light on the post-truth era.”
“I call myself, ‘Peter,’ in one video,” he said, explaining that he wants to stay detached from the role. “He has to be the butt of the joke,” McIndoe said. He remains in character for his audience, even during interviews with news networks like the Houston Chronicle in order to keep people questioning the truth, he said.
“It’s a proof of concept for Peter,” Schillawski said. “He’s dreamed about this type of character for a really long time… It’s something that no one’s done. It picks fun at everybody, but it doesn’t hurt anybody.”
Whether due to his passion and zeal, or that people are beginning to believe his theory, McIndoe has brought in over 69,000 followers on an Instagram page devoted to his campaigns, and a loyal following at that. He refers to patrons as patriots and calls them to “stay woke.”
His interactions with supporters have become more frequent since the latest growth in viewership. Houston describes a recent encounter at a coffee shop in Memphis, where a girl had a Birds Aren’t Real sticker on her laptop. McIndoe went over to introduce himself to the patriot. “She looked up and it was literally like a girl meeting One Direction a few years ago,” Houston said. “She was star struck. She was shaking. She looked like she was looking at her favorite band member.”
Birds Aren’t Real took off in 2017 when people first became interested, whether friends of McIndoe or those appreciative of the brilliance behind the joke.
“I remember Peter showing me the original video, after he went to the Women’s March, and being impressed with how funny and bizarre the movement was,” Maylee Loften, 21, said. Loften has been a follower and friend of McIndoe’s since the start of Birds Aren’t Real. “I remember getting my BAR sticker nearly 2 years ago from Peter and feeling so cool for knowing about this movement even though no one else did,” she said.
The early supporters grew at a slow, gradual pace from roughly 11,000 followers on Instagram after the first year. It wasn’t until September 2018, when McIndoe and his team witnessed their biggest jump in following thus far. He attended a concert in Dallas, Tex., where he reunited with his creative-inspirations, the band Brockhampton and its ring leader, Kevin Abstract.
After the show, McIndoe found himself backstage hanging with the band members and discussing Birds Aren’t Real. Before he knew it, photos of Abstract sporting a Birds Aren’t Real t-shirt surfaced on the front page of Reddit. There was an influx of traffic happening on his page from new followers, mentions, and comments.
With new patriots joining the movement, McIndoe released print off flyers on his Instagram page leading people to distribute like wildfire. The flyers themselves gained traction as twitter and reddit began reposting sightings of the advertisements.
The two events altered the dynamic of Birds Aren’t Real now that a mass audience was eyeing McIndoe’s work.
“I call it the ‘bird brigade,’” he said, explaining that, due to the influx of followers, the website sold out of merchandise and their team had expanded while busy handling the business side of things.
Aside from his internet virality, the success of the business side gave McIndoe reassurance in his decision to continue with Birds Aren’t Real, despite the pressure of those who doubted its future and affluence. “It was a bet I had to make,” McIndoe said.
“I could’ve been a psychology major or something,” McIndoe said, describing the way his life would have been if he hadn’t pursued this idea. He probably would still be a student at the UofA. He would be without a platform for political satire. He took a risk that most people had warned him not to, and he moved to Memphis, Tenn. with a thousand white t-shirts and a conspiracy theory.
McIndoe knows he can’t just talk about birds forever. He’s thought about turning the whole thing into a documentary. The film would breakdown the creation and psychology behind the prototype of a fake conspiracy and why humanity tunes into ridiculous ideas like birds aren’t real.
Many people applaud him through comments and direct messages assuming his feathered gospel mocks different political spectrums from feminists to Trump supporters. However, McIndoe explains that it’s not about specific political ideologies, but instead it’s an American issue all around.
“It’s this branch of humor that’s very post-absurdist and sort of this weird alt-modern to where it doesn’t come out inadvertently insane, but it’s humor,” McIndoe said. “It’s about the ideology and this crazed era that we’re experiencing, and it seems so surreal. I’m trying to capture that same sense of surrealness in my videos by blending fiction and reality.”