When you think of pandas, you typically think about one of two things: One, the adorable, monochromatic animal that was the subject of a 2003 DreamWorks Animation film, or two, that song by Desiigner. The latest conspiracy theory currently making the rounds on TikTok concerns the former — specifically, whether or not panda bears are real, or whether, as some have speculated, they are simply humans in bear costumes.

As discussed on this week’s episode of Don’t Let This Flop, Rolling Stone‘s podcast about internet culture, the “pandas aren’t real” conspiracy theory has been circulating on the internet in some form for a long time. On Reddit, for instance, a 2015 post with the headline, “I’m fairly certain pandas are just an extremely elaborate hoax” received a few thousand upvotes, with people speculating whether pandas are just humans in adult costumes, because of how human-like a lot of their movements are. Others have also pointed out odd facts about pandas — such as that they are carnivores that almost exclusively eat bamboo, or that they famously refuse to have sex in captivity — to underscore what they perceive to be the evolutionary impossibility of their existence. 

To complicate things even further, there have been documented cases of zoos faking panda bears. For instance, a zoo in Taiwan was reportedly caught dying a sun bear black and white and marketing it as a panda in the late 1980s. An Italian circus was also caught dying puppies black-and-white in an effort to pass them off as pandas in 2014. Such incidents clearly have given skeptics ammunition to believe that panda bears as a whole aren’t real. 


Reply to @thesunny.witch just my thoughts…maybe I’m wrong. But a lot of things that make you go hmmm #theravenoflight #pandasarentreal #conspirancy

♬ Steven Universe – L.Dre

To an extent, much of the discourse surrounding whether pandas are real or not is tongue-in-cheek. In some respects, it is somewhat similar to the birds aren’t real meme that went viral on TikTok last year, which posited that birds are actually drones made up by the U.S. government to spy on its citizens. As the New York Times reported, the meme was an in-joke that took on a life of its own and evolved into a parody of similar misinformation campaigns, even being cited by its creator as a way to fight the onslaught of misinformation online. 

Yet some of the discourse surrounding whether pandas are “real” or not veers uncomfortably into darker conspiracy theory territory. In one video with more than 218,000 likes, a creator details her theory that pandas are not real because they aren’t documented in Chinese historical literature (this actually isn’t true; panda sightings are documented in ancient Chinese history and a Qin dynasty medical journal even recommended their pelts as a menstrual treatment in the third century B.C.E., according to naturalist George Schaller.) The creator then goes on to link this theory to a meme associated with the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory, which posits that a ring of global elites is trafficking and sexually abusing children, proving how slippery the slope is from supposedly harmless conspiracy theories to much darker ones. 


Prove me wrong #pandas #pandasarentreal #greenscreenvideo

♬ Spooky, quiet, scary atmosphere piano songs – Skittlegirl Sound

For the record, pandas are indeed very real, and very adorable. But for more unpacking of various internet phenomena, check out this week’s episode of Don’t Let This Flop, which also discusses why Gen Z is canceling Elvis (again), why you should never let TikTok convince you to sell feet pics on FeetFinder, and whether Chris Evans is making Boston, of all places, seem cool.

DLTF is released Wednesdays on all audio streaming platforms, including Apple PodcastsSpotifyAmazon MusicStitcher and more.


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