Building Trust When There’s No Truth: What we can learn from the “Birds Aren’t Real” Movement

The topics of truth and untruth were everywhere at SXSW 2022, with many perspectives on the other pandemic that proliferated during 2020: disinformation

Disinformation is a term that is now on the rise, which takes one step beyond misinformation, connoting the deliberate spread of false information.

Take a gander at the Birds Aren’t Real movement, whose 23-year-old founder, Peter McIndoe, spoke at SXSW this year. Birds Aren’t Real is a satirical movement that attacks the rampant spread of misinformation head-on, leaning into a conspiracy that the government killed off all birds and replaced them with surveillance drones. See that sparrow? Fake. Spot a falcon? Spying on you.

And if you think that’s something you’d never fall for, don’t be so sure. 

We’ve seen disinformation manifest on the political stage, but also in our personal lives and connections, especially as we move further into a digital world, in which the average person worldwide spends a staggering 7 hours a day online.  

From the proclamations of “fake news” from an unmentionable previous president (*shudder*), to rampant conspiracy theories, to the role of corporations in the spread of misinformation (looking at you, big tech), there is a reckoning taking place in terms of trust. And it has some serious implications for how we engage, especially for brands.

So what can we learn from the Birds Aren’t Real Movement? In a world where “truth” and “facts” aren’t even broadly agreed upon, how do brands rebuild and regain collective trust? 

1. Embrace curiosity and empathy.

A lack of empathy, curiosity and isolation from those different from you (certainly exacerbated by the pandemic) leads to further entrenchment, division, and other-ism, where we double-down in our own set of beliefs. 

McIndoe—who hasn’t spoken as himself, but rather the character of the impassioned founder of the Birds movement, since its inception three years ago—broke his “silence” at SXSW, and he remarked, “Getting into the head of the character has helped me empathize healthily … with boundaries. In order to diffuse [conspiracy theories], getting inside the head of these people is crucial … and understanding that we are human, and we are all looking for identity and community at the end of the day.”

Take heed from McIndoe—embodying empathy and curiosity brings us together as an attempt to understand one another versus being “right.”

2. Stop screaming and start creating.

The Birds Aren’t Real movement is an intriguing case study on the use of humor and satire to fight misinformation, taking a diffusive rather than inflammatory approach.  Combating opposing viewpoints with a presentation of yours doesn’t work, and Birds Aren’t Real points out how easy it is to become so entrenched in our subjective truth that we deny the rest and only seek our own echo chambers.

McIndoe uses an intriguing metaphor to explain how Birds Aren’t Real works against the chaos caused by misinformation—an igloo. He says, “The [igloo] is the concept of taking the thing that is causing the chaos, like snow, and creating a shelter out of it to keep you out of harm’s way.”

It’s all too easy to collapse into an existential spiral given the daily inundation of new information, but brands have an opportunity to take creative action amid the chaos. As Birds Aren’t Real has shown, leaning into humor and creativity not only breaks through the noise, but can also cause the masses to change their minds. 

3. People and purpose still come first.

Consumers are the ones pushing our conversations about transparency forward at record pace. They are demanding more out of the world around them, and especially the brands with which they engage. And why shouldn’t they? Truth feels scarce, and that’s exhausting. 

So, it’s not surprising to find that, in the end, the Birds Aren’t Real movement was about building community and grappling with difficult experiences during a tough time. “Birds Aren’t Real is not a shallow satire of conspiracies from the outside. It is from the deep inside,” McIndoe 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.”

It is hard to live in our world right now. People need help. They need community. They need to laugh. They need to make sense of the lunacy that so often prevails. And if the best way to do all of that is to cosplay a conspiracy theorist, we’re here for it. 

When it comes to building strong brands, it’s always been about purpose. Solve a problem. Build a community. Work to change the world in a positive way. 

And, if you don’t, the birds will know.