Birds Aren't Real, And Kids Are Not So Susceptible To Conspiracy Theories (Their Parents On The Other Hand…)
from the birds-aren't-real dept
Back in high school, I read Robert Anton Wilson/Robert Shea’s Illuminatus! Trilogy back-to-back with Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, and ended up being amused and fascinated at the intersection of conspiracy theories and pranksters. If you’re unaware, both books satirize the nature of conspiracy theories. Soon after I picked up a copy of Re/Search’s Pranks! book, which, to this day, is on my book shelf between a copy of the Mondo 2000 book and The Book of the SubGenius (with a copy of the tiny Loompanics yellow version of Principia Discordia sitting next to them). Soon after reading those, I got to college, and thanks to the wonders of the internet (and Usenet in particular) discovered a group of somewhat merry internet pranksters who dubbed themselves “The Flat Earth Society” — as a purely ironic group who enjoyed the mixture of absurdity, satire, pranking, with an appreciation for the occasional conspiracy theory worth mocking (I’m still in touch with some people from that group decades later, again, thanks to the internet).
That’s all preamble to note that I not only recognize, but really appreciate what’s going on with a group of Gen Z pranksters, who cooked up a rather brilliant satirical conspiracy theory, better known as “Birds Aren’t Real,” which has been making the rounds for a while now, and only was officially “exposed” as a prank in a thoroughly delightful NY Times article last week.
The events were all connected by a Gen Z-fueled conspiracy theory, which posits that birds don’t exist and are really drone replicas installed by the U.S. government to spy on Americans. Hundreds of thousands of young people have joined the movement, wearing Birds Aren’t Real T-shirts, swarming rallies and spreading the slogan.
It might smack of QAnon, the conspiracy theory that the world is controlled by an elite cabal of child-trafficking Democrats. Except that the creator of Birds Aren’t Real and the movement’s followers are in on a joke: They know that birds are, in fact, real and that their theory is made up.
What Birds Aren’t Real truly is, they say, is a parody social movement with a purpose. In a post-truth world dominated by online conspiracy theories, young people have coalesced around the effort to thumb their nose at, fight and poke fun at misinformation. It’s Gen Z’s attempt to upend the rabbit hole with absurdism.
It seems that every generation needs this kind of thing — and it’s often driven by young folks (correctly) mocking older folks for various moral panics about different conspiracy theories. We see it again, and again. The Stuff You Should Know podcast just recently had an episode all about SINA, the “Society for Indecency to Naked Animals” which was a very similar style prank in the late 1950s, early 1960s.
In each case, these tend to be efforts by younger folks mocking this or that moral panic by older folks — who always cloak the moral panic in a desire to “protect the children,” even as the moral panics themselves seem frequently to come out of conspiracy theories or nonsense that the older folks fall for, and many of the younger folks see through. It’s hard not to identify with this kind of thinking:
Most Birds Aren’t Real members, many of whom are part of an on-the-ground activism network called the Bird Brigade, grew up in a world overrun with misinformation. Some have relatives who have fallen victim to conspiracy theories. So for members of Gen Z, the movement has become a way to collectively grapple with those experiences. By cosplaying conspiracy theorists, they have found community and kinship, Mr. McIndoe said.
“Birds Aren’t Real is not a shallow satire of conspiracies from the outside. It is from the deep inside,” he said. “A lot of people in our generation feel the lunacy in all this, and Birds Aren’t Real has been a way for people to process that.”
Or as someone notes later in the article:
Mr. Gaydos added, “If anyone believes birds aren’t real, we’re the last of their concerns, because then there’s probably no conspiracy they don’t believe.”
To me, though the clear take away from this is that, yet again, the kids are alright, and will continue to be alright. And for all of the “but think of the children” moral panics we will experience over and over again, the kids will figure out ways to process and deal with those moral panics in the best way possible for them, figuring out the best ways to deal with the impossibilities of the world, and making the best of what may seem like a bad situation.
Count me as all in as saying “birds aren’t real.”