Do pandas really exist? At TikTok, the debate rages

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Few animals are as worshiped (and protected) as giant pandas. While the species has the status of “national treasure” in China, its existence on TikTok is being questioned. Some users of the platform claim that pandas do not exist. A look back at a conspiracy theory that fascinates younger generations.

Its round and soft silhouette, its large eyes and its clumsy gait make giant pandas particularly captivating. No wonder the black and white plant grade has become a symbol of environmental protection. It is also the national symbol of China, the only country where the species still lives in the wild.

If the species is no longer considered endangered since 2016, some internet users say it has never been. They even go so far as to claim that these herbivorous bears never existed. It would, in fact, be men disguised as giant pandas or bears painted in black and white. This conspiracy theory is particularly popular on TikTok, where the hashtag #pandasnotreal has more than 6.2 million views.

A carnivore has become exclusively herbivorous

Platform users who stick to this conspiracy theory rely on several amazing facts about giant pandas. The first concerns their diet. This carnivorous species became exclusively herbivorous after a genetic mutation. Their diet consists mainly of bamboo, which they sip using their opposite “pseudo-thumb” and powerful jaws.

Another confusing aspect for internet users: the (very) difficult reproduction of giant pandas. The perpetuation of the species is like an obstacle course. Couples can only reproduce a few days a year, between February 15 and March 30, when the pandahun is only fertile for 48 hours. The males are also reluctant to breed …

So many pitfalls that raise questions from TikTok users. “Pandas are so bad for life that they can not mate without help. The basic animal instinct is how to mate, and they can not even do that,” claims a network user known by the nickname @that_pearl_witch.

This conspiracy theory about the non-existence of pandas is not new. As pointed out Rolling stonesThe Reddit forum has been home to discussions on the topic since 2015.

“I’m pretty sure the pandas are just an extremely complicated scam,” one read. Another network user replied, “I swear it’s the truth. Somehow all the pandas here in the United States died and were replaced by guys in suits to preserve our relationship with China.”

Young people are more permeable to this misinformation

The resurgence of this horror of giant pandas illustrates the fact that young people, and especially teenagers, are the ideal target for those who want 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 connection between these information uses, the fact of getting information on social networks, on online video platforms in particular as such as YouTube, and a greater tendency to follow a large number of conspiracy theories, ”Rudy Reichstadt, founder of the site, explained to FranceInfo in 2021.

Fight the absurd with the absurd

But some young Internet users are resisting and sharing their despair on the Internet in the face of the conspiratorial excesses of our society. The proof of the movement “Birds Are Not Real” (“Birds Are Not Real”) in French).

This group, founded in 2017 by American Peter McIndoe, seeks to combat misinformation through the absurd. He made headlines after infiltrating an anti-abortion protest in Cincinnati, Ohio last year. Their parody slogan, which claims that birds have been replaced by drones since the 1970s for espionage purposes, overshadowed pro-life activists. If only the panda conspiracy theory had the same ambition …

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