By Matthew Bisner (’22)
In the summer of 2019, a billboard loomed over Memphis, Tennessee with a simple message: “Birds Aren’t Real.” A representative of the eponymous organization, appearing on local news, maintained that leaders in the U.S. government had slaughtered all birds and replaced them with surveillance drones beginning in the 1950s. Across the country, Birds Aren’t Real (BAR) stickers, shirts, and hats have spread like wildfire among college students. What can the popularity of such an organization teach us about youth response to the expanding surveillance state? Examining primary documents promulgated by the organization itself, college newspaper coverage of the organization, and interviews with its members, this paper argues that the conspiratorial thinking present in BAR serves as a hyperbolized way for young people to satirize the realities of the surveillance state. An analysis of these sources and Queer theory of performativity shows that BAR seeks to commodify conspiratorial thinking through its focus on selling merchandise while strategically deploying discursive practices of activist organizations, publicity efforts especially at colleges, and general fears about the surveillance state. The success of BAR commodifies youth resentment to heightened surveillance, likely prompting greater political cynicism among its followers, and its performative nature seeks to undermine state surveillance while functionally normalizing its intrusion into everyday privacy.
History of the Organization
To begin, I will provide a general overview of BAR, including its operations and invented tradition. At the 2017 Memphis Women’s March, the organization’s founder Peter McIndoe took to the streets intending to film a video rallying people behind a senseless cause. Given the movement’s later critiques of the QAnon movement, this first counter-demonstration shows early signs of McIndoe’s critical performance of activism. What resulted was the first YouTube video for the BAR movement. Armed with a handmade sign and a small group of compatriots, McIndoe confronted March attendees with prototypical catchphrases and talking points, at times citing concerns about “Obama drones” and “Killary Clinton” (1). A student magazine at the University of Arkansas, which McIndoe attended at the time, explained that McIndoe dropped out of the University soon after the march to build the brand, establish a social media presence, and capitalize on the “demand for merchandise to represent this newfound meme” (2). Besides leading the merchandising company behind BAR’s t-shirts and stickers, McIndoe has appeared more times than any organization member in interviews and social media posts. He is ostensibly the leader of the movement.
At its most fundamental level, the current BAR organization is a business which sells shirts, hats, stickers, socks, etc (3). Instead of adopting a typical marketing campaign for this merchandise, however, BAR has relied on McIndoe’s rhetoric of conspiracy and movement-building activism to spread its message and sell its products. The company’s website builds on these theories through a page dedicated to “The History ” of the movement (4). The stories on this page date back to the 1950s and implicate President Dwight Eisenhower, CIA Director Allen Dulles, CIA Director William Colby, and President Donald Trump. In the process of telling the story of large-scale avian genocide, state surveillance, and coverups, the authors from BAR point toward other conspiracy theories by suggesting that President Kennedy’s resistance to avian surveillance drones led to his assassination by the CIA and that the Denver International Airport is home to a massive underground assembly factory for bird surveillance drones (4).
In early 2019, BAR developed a structured body of followers and promoters known as the Bird Brigade. This body’s primary function is to recruit brand ambassadors across various communities, especially on college campuses. These ambassadors are unpaid, but the appeal seems to be either the hope for advancement or the fun of promoting the movement. An interview with Cameron DeShetler, a member of the Bird Brigade responsible for the Notre Dame campus, illustrated that the group is both highly organized and stratified (5). For instance, the U.S. is home to four sectors, all managed by a shadowy figure known as The Minister who serves as liaison between the Brigade and the organization’s higher leadership. Within the Brigade membership, members may achieve Elder status if they meet their material distribution goals for three consecutive months. In addition, a recent election among Brigade members named officers of the Brigade. (Note: It is unclear at time of writing what benefits or duties, if any, Elder status members and Brigade officers receive.) Yet, the Brigade members are not the only brand ambassadors for the business, and DeShetler admitted that a recent Instagram account promoting BAR among Notre Dame students was independently made (6). This blurs the line between the BAR organization and its ever-expanding network of supporters.
The summer of 2019 saw the rise of more common marketing strategies and public appearances by BAR leader Peter McIndoe to promote the movement. For instance, as mentioned above, BAR rented a billboard over Memphis, Tennessee with its name written in big letters over a busy thoroughfare. In response, the local news reached out to the organization for comment, and McIndoe appeared in an interview with the WREG News Channel 3 team. In the interview, one anchor implied that the business and corresponding movement are merely satire to make a point. McIndoe deadpanned his response: “Honestly, that’s kind of offensive.” When the anchor pointed out that McIndoe said it was satirical before the interview began, McIndoe said he had hoped to avoid a “liberal media hit job” which might discredit or censor the truth he sought to share (7). The following year, a similar billboard appeared in Los Angeles to “spread the feathered gospel” (8).
At the time of writing, the BAR social media accounts are incredibly popular, especially among young people, boasting more than 300,000 followers on Instagram and nearly 400,000 on TikTok, a social media platform which is most popular among members of Gen Z. From 2019 to the present, college students across the country have responded to Birds Aren’t Real with varying levels of incredulity. Some adopt the rhetoric of the movement to actively promote it on their campuses, either creating new stories about personal encounters with bird drones or simply parroting the rhetoric of the organization (9, 10). Others, however, respond to the organization by linking it to national crises of misinformation (11). A number of college students link the success of BAR to a response to the realities of the surveillance state. One such student points out that while the idea of bird drones is entertaining, “most folks attempt to ignore the nature and current state of digital surveillance in their everyday lives” (12). A last student succinctly describes BAR as “a form of tame protest, a way of pointing out what our society is capable of and the dangers that come with technology. We laugh at ‘Birds aren’t real’ because we know it isn’t true, but it forces us to consider the possibility before we dismiss it” (13).
2021 has proven to be an active year for Birds Aren’t Real, as McIndoe has appeared in a Newsweek interview, and the organization has published another conspiracy article on their website titled #Poultrygate. This theory essentially claims that only a few real birds remain and that elites such as Senator Ted Cruz and Bill Gates are actively hoarding them away for themselves. During his Newsweek interview, McIndoe is quoted as saying, “I think that everyone, deep down, can identify and relate to the fact that we are being surveilled, and that that surveillance is most likely coming from 12 billion birds simultaneously,” linking the work of BAR to the realities of the surveillance state. James Crowley, author of the Newsweek article, quotes McIndoe possibly alluding to the comedic nature of his work. Before the interview, McIndoe stated, “In regards to our movement being a joke, or for real: That is the very question that our post-truth era comedy project thrives within.” During the interview, however, McIndoe recanted: “That’s one of the saddest things, that people consider that this could be some sort of mass-improvisational performance, or some sort of showcasing, highlighting a new era we’ve entered into as a society where anything can be true. Even if [the movement’s being satirical] was the case, you really wouldn’t even be able to tell” (14).
A day after the publication of the Newsweek article, BAR published a statement calling the piece a work of “viral swamp media,” and “journalistic gaslighting” (15). It further says that new information leaks would soon follow the Newsweek article. That leak came early in April as a detailed “#Poultrygate” article documented emails exchanged among Senator Ted Cruz, Bill Gates, Ty Pennington, and others planning the construction of more drone-construction factories in hollowed out mountains (16).
The primary motivation and significance behind Birds Aren’t Real is left open to interpretation by the members of the organization, those who interview them, and the young people who respond to the organization through college newspapers. Outside of his interviews, Peter McIndoe communicates to his interviewers that his primary aim is satire and a desire to poke fun at the “post-truth era” in which we find ourselves (14). No quote could be as clear as McIndoe’s assertion that one would not be able to tell if his movement is merely a comedy project or a legitimate statement of conspiratorial belief. Here, Peter Knight’s Conspiracy Culture: From Kennedy to the X Files echoes this sentiment, saying that contemporary conspiracy theories represent “an ironic stance towards knowledge and the possibility of truth” and that conspiratorial rhetoric “takes itself seriously, but at the same time casts satiric suspicion on everything, even its own pronouncements” (17). By simultaneously saying that his aim is satire while taking the conspiracy theory seriously on camera, McIndoe shows the same dual-intent that Knight lays out in his cultural understanding of conspiracy theories. Further, BAR’s many supporters both show the efficacy of this type of ironic knowledge production to go viral and that they mainly promote the theory in an ironic way. Both an interview with a Bird Brigade member and an article in the University of Arkansas student magazine confirm that BAR seeks to ironically ridicule QAnon and mainstream politics without intentionally harming anyone (2,5). One of the above college authors says bluntly that it is not at all likely that many believe in the veracity of the Birds Aren’t Real theory (13).
Still, the ironic and satirical nature of the support for BAR cannot explain its near-ubiquitous popularity among young people in the U.S. nor can it explain the theory’s long reach beyond the mere sale of t-shirts. Why is it, in other words, that “everyone, deep down, can identify and relate to the fact that we are being surveilled”? The expansion of the surveillance state is no secret, and the recent episodes of whistleblowers coming forward to expose its reach, such as that of Edward Snowden, remain present in the public consciousness. In addition, the rise of surveillance capitalism to make ever-more tailored marketing campaigns represents the encroachment of corporations into the privacy of U.S. citizens, perhaps explaining why BAR lumped Senator Ted Cruz in with corporate leaders like Bill Gates in their alleged conspiracies to create and control avian surveillance drones. One college student above made that link explicit when they correlated BAR’s rise to the rise of both the surveillance state and the intrusive nature of corporate information privatization (12). BAR, therefore, represents a galvanizing and attention-grabbing response to the realities of increasing intrusion into personal privacy, whether from the State or from corporations.
Further, the profit-seeking conspiracy theories of BAR are situated in a wider context of utilizing comedy as a way to satirize political developments and thereby turn a profit. There has, for instance, been considerable attention devoted to the effects of late-night political satire television shows on political sentiment. In 2006, two studies found that exposure to late-night political satire shows correlated to lower levels of trust in U.S. political systems (18, 19). For Andrew Stott’s later work, these television shows primarily function to disengage people from political action and mobilization. Paraphrasing Steve Almond, Stott notes that this brand of satire “packages voter anger, acknowledges it, and offers a kind of non-threatening remedy that also brings [political comedians] considerable rewards” (20). In other words, these studies show that political satire dissuades citizens from seeking systemic political change especially when that satire is tied to a profit motive, such as that arising from the entertainment industry. As stated above, BAR primarily arose from Peter McIndoe’s apparel company. The brand of satire which it purveys is centered around the continued profits of this apparel company, and it has to date proven ineffective as a catalyst for political organization against the surveillance state. Instead, BAR functions through the commodification of youth anger surrounding increased surveillance without a commitment to systemic change. Further quantitative research is needed to confirm this correlation, but it is likely that engagement with BAR may create the same political cynicism and disengagement which Stott and others note that late-night political satire television causes in its fans. Yet, through its satire of activism in general, BAR may also indicate a more concerning trend of general cynicism surrounding civil society groups and activist mobilization among its fans. As BAR continues to rise in popularity especially in college populations, its effects on political sentiment and disengagement may become more prominent in youth political behavior.
Lastly, the centrality of theatricality in BAR’s development cannot be overlooked. The Memphis Women’s March demonstration, McIndoe’s continued media appearances, and contemporary demonstrations at college campuses demonstrate that the performance of activism is foundational to this company’s marketing strategy. McIndoe himself started the company through an intent to publicly perform a nonsense protest in Memphis and frequently adopts the language of movement building and organizing in his media appearances. In addition, the creation of a conspiracy theory shows that BAR’s theatricality is predicated on hyperbole surrounding the surveillance state. A turn to the Queer politics of Judith Butler clarifies the role that this response plays in the naming and subverting of normalized surveillance.
For Butler, Queer responses to the oppressive nature of the gender system include drag, a hyperbolized theatrical performance which mocks gender norms. In this way, drag undermines the system of gender by hyperbolizing it to extremity, but it has the proclivity to reify that system by insisting on the norms it seeks to mock (21). While not either explicitly or implicitly Queer in formation or intention, BAR’s theatricality and hyperbole play the same essential function for U.S. youth today. BAR hyperbolizes the surveillance functions of the State to denormalize the intrusion of both public and private interests into the daily lives of citizens. To the normative aspect of this analysis, Butler suggests that drag comes up short when it fails to be used as a tool to undermine and weaken the gender norms it hyperbolizes. Similarly, I hold that BAR comes up short when it fails to provoke political mobilization against the surveillance it hyperbolizes. This failure is manifest in the different interpretations of its mission and the absence of those using BAR to galvanize political organization. In other words, the subversive capacity of BAR the movement is hampered by the profit-seeking mission of BAR the business.
A complete analysis of Birds Aren’t Real is complex. It clearly takes an ironic stance toward activism and elites while also responding to the legitimate concerns of U.S. youth regarding rising surveillance and absurd conspiracists. The stated intent behind the organization remains satire in a post-truth era, as evidenced by McIndoe’s many interviews, yet some members of the organization act as if they truly believe in the mission and truth of avian surveillance drones. To understand this theory and its full implications, we should look at the political context in which it has formed and risen in popularity. By satirizing this political context and hyperbolizing the surveillance state, BAR seeks to subvert and call attention to the true extent to which surveillance has intruded in our lives.
At its heart, however, BAR is an apparel business whose primary goal is the production of profit for its stakeholders. This guides the very nature of its outreach, through the commodification of political unease and of activist aesthetics. This commodification undercuts its political efficacy through two primary mechanisms. First, its political satire without a commitment to systemic change likely increases political cynicism among its fans similar to late night political satire television shows whose effects are well-documented. This cynicism does not translate into political mobilization but merely dissolves trust in political systems and leads to greater political disengagement among BAR fans. Second, its performative nature hyperbolizes the surveillance state with an intent to undermine its continued growth, but in doing so it normalizes everyday surveillance while failing to prompt resistance thereto. These two mechanisms, while making BAR incredibly popular, hamper its ability to mobilize political responses to the surveillance state.
College students across the country have put the pieces together and recognize that BAR is not merely a catchy slogan but a lens through which to view and fight the surveillance state. These rhetorical connections, however, have yet to yield large-scale resistance to increased surveillance. The commodification that BAR embodies is the primary roadblock to the manifestation of such resistance.
Matthew Bisner is a Political Science major with a supplementary major in Peace Studies and a minor in Gender Studies. Their essay was originally written for Professor Perin Gurel’s American Studies course, ‘American Conspiracies.’
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