Do pandas really exist? Over on TikTok, the jury’s out

Some Internet users claim that pandas have never existed. — AFP Relaxnews

Few animals are as beloved (and protected) as giant pandas. But while the species holds the status of “national treasure” in China, its very existence is currently being questioned on TikTok.

Some users of the platform claim that pandas aren’t real. So what’s with this conspiracy theory that seems to fascinate the younger generation?

Their cuddly, furry bodies, big eyes and clumsy walk make giant pandas particularly endearing. It’s no wonder the black and white bear has become a symbol of environmental protection, as well as the national symbol of China, the only country where the species still lives in the wild.

While the species has not been considered endangered since 2016, some Internet users say it never was. They even go further, in fact, claiming that these mammals never existed in the first place, and are actually just men dressed up in panda suits or bears painted black and white. This conspiracy theory is particularly popular on TikTok, where the hashtag #pandasnotreal counts over 6.2 million views.

Platform users who subscribe to this conspiracy theory draw on several surprising facts about giant pandas. The first one concerns their diet. This carnivorous species has become exclusively herbivorous following a genetic mutation. Their diet is essentially made up of bamboo, which they nibble with their opposable “pseudo thumbs” and their powerful jaws.

Another confusing aspect singled out by Internet users are the challenges pandas face when it comes to reproducing. The perpetuation of the species is like an uphill battle. Couples can only reproduce a few days a year, between February 15 and March 30, a period during which the female panda is fertile for only 48 hours. The males are also reluctant to reproduce... And these pitfalls raise questions among TikTok users.

“Pandas are so bad at life that they can't even mate without intervention. A basic animal instinct is inherently knowing how to get it on, and they can’t even do that,” says an internet user under the name @that_pearl_witch.

Fighting the absurd with the absurd

This conspiracy theory about the non-existence of pandas is not actually new. As Rolling Stone points out, the Reddit forum has hosted discussions on the subject since 2015.

“I’m fairly certain pandas are just an extremely elaborate hoax,” reads one such musing. To which another user replies: “I swear this is the truth. Somehow all the pandas here in the US died and guys are dressed up in suits to keep up relations with china.”

The resurgence of this fantasy about giant pandas illustrates the fact that young people, especially teenagers, are the ideal target for anyone looking to spread conspiracy theories.

“They are more permeable because of an exposure bias, simply because they get more information on social networks. We know that there is a correlation between these informative uses – the fact of getting information on social networks, on online video platforms such as YouTube – and a greater propensity to adhere to a large number of conspiracy theories,” Rudy Reichstadt, founder of the site, told FranceInfo in 2021.

However, some young Internet users are resisting, taking to the Web to voice their despair at the conspiratorial leanings of today’s society.

The “Birds Are Not Real” movement, for example, founded in 2017 by an American called Peter McIndoe, seeks to combat misinformation with the absurd. It made headlines after infiltrating an anti-abortion protest in Cincinnati, Ohio, last year.

The group’s parody slogan, which claims that birds have been replaced by drones since the 1970s for covert surveillance purposes, overshadowed the message of pro-life activists. – AFP Relaxnews

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