Jul 22 2019

Conspiracies Are For the Birds

Let me just start by saying – I don’t believe for a second that this one is real. I think it’s something between absurdist performance art, trolling, and marketing. But it does raise the question about the ultimate effects of such things, and therefore the ethics.

There is an online faux movement called, “Birds Aren’t Real.” It is a fake conspiracy theory someone made up in order to make fun of other conspiracy theories, and perhaps sell T-shirts. The idea is that sometime in the 1970s the US government killed all the birds in North America and replaced them with identical drones in order to spy on its citizens. Of course this makes no sense on multiple levels. Why would they bother to kill all the birds, rather than just mix their drones in with the natural ones? Why hasn’t anyone captured or found one of these drones? And of course, the technology to pull this off is at least a century off, so how did the CIA (or whoever) pull this off 40 years ago?

The absurdity of this conspiracy theory is a feature, not a bug. The question is – why did someone bother? I can certainly see the fun in doing so. Read the website, it’s transparent (in my opinion) mockery. There are various theories as to what’s behind the movement, and what the true motivation is for those who created and who promote it. The cynical view is that they are just trying to sell merchandise by creating a brand. It may work. Others believe they are skeptics trying to expose the gullibility of conspiracy theorists. Or it may have all simply been a joke, or some version of trolling. It may be all of these things.

The question is – will the birds aren’t real meme take on a life of its own? This question has lead to perhaps the least likely theory, that this is all an elaborate social psychological experiment testing the limits of human gullibility. This theory, however, is really just another fake conspiracy theory, which starts the cycle of speculation all over again.

But that core question remains – to what extent will anyone actually believe this absurd conspiracy theory, and will it become self-sustaining? Before you answer, consider the flat-earth conspiracy. Flat-earth is now the bar, the current champion demonstrating the extremes to which human gullibility is capable. Any question about whether or not a belief or conspiracy is too dumb for anyone to believe must pass the flat-earth test. In fact it seems that some of the flat-earth movement started in the same way – as a mockery. It was considered too extreme for anyone to take seriously, the quintessential silly archaic belief. And yet, here we are, with a disturbingly large flat-earth movement of serious adherents.

This is why, at the beginning of my skeptical activism, I decided not to do anything like this – no hoaxes, no mockery. First, as essentially a journalist, I never want anyone to question whether or not I am serious about what I say. But second, as skeptical activism, I don’t think these stunts work. They don’t convince anyone, they just make you look like a jerk. They also contribute to the blurring of the lines between reality and fiction – something we are trying to clarify, not confuse. That is the real potential harm of the birds-aren’t-real movement, it further erases the line between reality and just storytelling. It is the equivalent of infotainment.

There are lots of examples of this blurring of the lines. The movie and then TV series, Fargo, always prefaces its fiction with the claim that the stories are completely true. They aren’t. The claim to truth is just part of the theater. Historical fiction is based on actual history, but freely rewrites that history for narrative purposes. Braveheart, for example, is almost complete fiction. Actual history is replaced with a narrative that people then confuse for history. The aforementioned infotainment disguises itself like a new or information program, but the facts are selected and tweaked to maximize their entertainment value.

I don’t think the claim that people can tell the difference is defensible. Many news outlets are no longer presenting the news, they are entertaining their viewers with news-like performance art targeted at a specific political and cultural demographic. Everyone will have their own list of which news outlets fall into this category – and that’s the point. People will disagree, relying upon those outlets which cater to their preferred narrative while denouncing the rest as “fake news.”

It is as if our society has taken all types of information – news, science, expert opinion, marketing, the lunatic fringe, political opinion, casual theorizing, self-important bloviating, entertainment, and even the delusions of actual mental illness – put it all in a blender, mixed it up into a gray ooze, and dumped it out for general consumption. It’s now your job to sort through the muck and separate the useful bits from all the noise. But it’s actually worse than that, because the more extreme bits of information, if anything, have an advantage. They are click-bait, they are preferred by many social media algorithms, they are the shiny bits in the muck that are more likely to get your attention.

It is also a lot easier to promote chaos than order. Sowing doubt and confusion takes much less effort than sorting out reliable information from unreliable information. One misconception, casually dropped in one sentence in a comment section, can take orders of magnitude more time, effort, and words to unpack.

That is how you get to a self-sustaining flat-earth movement, or a sufficient anti-vaccine movement to allow the return of previously defeated diseases. No one knows anything. Everyone is their own expert. “Intuitive truth” trumps the hard work and rigor of science. It’s all just a blur.

But the game isn’t over yet. There are still robust institutions of science, education, academia, and journalism. They are behind the curve, in my opinion, in recognizing the existential threat to their institutions and taking steps to counter it. Academics in particular still don’t like to get their hands dirty with popularization. But reality is starting to dawn on some, and there is at least a discussion of what mitigating steps can be taken.

I don’t think the bird-aren’t-real thing has legs (pun intended). But after the flat-earth movement, I don’t think we can be confident. It may end up more in the Flying Spaghetti Monster zone, where it does survive but everyone is in on the joke. We’ll see.

My advice to skeptical activists is this – don’t fall for the allure of the hoax as activism (whether or not that is what this is). Our job should be to clarify reality, not muddy the waters, no matter what our ultimate goal. We don’t need to demonstrate how gullible people can be. These kinds of stunts will not convince anyone. They will just add to the noise and damage our own credibility.


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