Multimedia | Do pandas really exist? Debate rages on TikTok

(ETX Daily Up) – Few animals are as adored (and protected) as giant pandas. Although the species has “national treasure” status in China, its existence has been questioned on TikTok. Some users of the platform claim that pandas do not exist. A look back at the conspiracy theory that fascinates the younger generation.

The rounded and soft silhouette, large eyes and clumsy gait make giant pandas especially attractive. No wonder black and white plantigrades have become a symbol of environmental protection. It is also the national symbol of China, the only country where this species is still found in the wild.

If the species is no longer considered threatened since 2016, some internet users say it never was. They even go further, claiming that these herbivorous bears never existed. They would actually be humans disguised as giant pandas or bears, painted in black and white. This conspiracy theory is particularly popular on TikTok, where the #pandasnotreal hashtag has over 6.2 million views.

Platform users holding this conspiracy theory rely on some amazing facts about giant pandas. The first concerns their diet. This predatory species became exclusively herbivorous after a genetic mutation. Their diet consists mainly of bamboo, which they gnaw using an opposable “pseudo-thumb” and powerful jaws.

Another confusing aspect for Internet users: the (very) complex reproduction of giant pandas. Maintaining a view is like an obstacle course. Pairs can only breed for a few days a year, from February 15 to March 30, during which the female panda is only capable of breeding for 48 hours. Males are also reluctant to breed … So many pitfalls that raise questions from TikTok users. “Pandas are so bad at life that they can’t mate without help. The basic animal instinct is how to mate, and they can’t even do that,” says a netizen known by the nickname @that_pearl_witch.

Fight the absurd with the absurd

This conspiracy theory regarding the non-existence of pandas is not new. As Rolling Stone notes, there have been discussions on this subject on the Reddit forum since 2015. “I’m pretty sure pandas are just an elaborate hoax,” said one. Another netizen replied, “I swear it’s true. One way or another, all the pandas died here in the United States and were replaced by guys in suits to save our relationship with China.”

The resurgence of this giant panda tirade illustrates the fact that young people, especially teenagers, are the perfect target for those who want to spread conspiracy theories. “They are more receptive due to exposure bias, simply because they get more exposure on social media. We know that there is a correlation between this information use, the fact of getting information on social networks, in particular on online video platforms such as YouTube, and a greater tendency to hold a lot of conspiracy theories,” explained Rudy Reichstadt, founder of conspiracywatch.info , FranceInfo in 2021.

However, some young Internet users resist and share online their despair in the face of the conspiratorial excesses of our society. Proof by the movement “Birds Are Not Real” (“Birds do not exist” in French). This group, founded in 2017 by American Peter McIndow, aims to fight disinformation through the use of absurdity. He made headlines after infiltrating an anti-abortion protest in Cincinnati, Ohio last year. Their parodic slogan, which claims that since the 1970s birds have been replaced by drones for espionage purposes, has overshadowed that of pro-life activists. If only the panda conspiracy theory had the same ambition…

Caroline Jevinsky

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