Fairies AND FAKE NEWS
Confirmation bias is the instinct we all have to believe that which confirms what we already thought to be true: The world is flat, or wine and cheese are the secrets to a long life, or third-born children are inherently smarter, for instance. This is at once the flip side and the foundation for the 21st-century conversation surrounding fake news and its impact: If we inherently trust news sources that confirm what we already suspect, the next step is to inherently mistrust any source that offers a counternarrative. Information is now disseminated in a multitude of formats, all available 24 hours a day, which often makes the truth difficult to discern from lies. But the issue of fake news didn’t begin during the 2016 Presidential election—it’s as old as mass media itself.
In 1920, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published an article in Strand magazine that included, at face value, two photographs of young English girls posed with what he (and they) claimed were real fairies. To a modern eye, the photographs seem obviously faked—pretty cutouts propped up near the human models—and even at the time, many were skeptical of the veracity of the images. The photos were scrutinized by experts, and the photographers, Elsie Wright (aged 16) and her 10-year-old cousin Frances Griffiths, were interviewed repeatedly by a series of men alternately eager to believe and to debunk them. Gender bias and sexism meant that the girls were simultaneously dismissed, admired, and demonized by the public. If the fairies were real, they appeared to Elsie and Frances because the girls were so simple; the fairies must be real because two small-town girls couldn’t be clever enough to fake it; or the girls, like all of their gender, were lying to get attention.
Like today’s viral memes, the photos were taken and distributed at the only time they could have possibly become an international controversy. The nascent art of photography meant the experts of the time were still relatively green. The speed with which new technology shaped the world left people both longing for a simpler time yet quicker to accept magic, and in a world still scarred by World War I, many were eager
for a lighthearted diversion. The girls never sought out fame for the photos, and perhaps this sincerity was part of their appeal. They avoided the press as much as they could, but held steadfast to the veracity of the photos until finally coming clean in a 1983 interview. The girls’ actions certainly don’t indicate that they continued the hoax out of a desire for attention; they didn’t instigate any of the follow-up reports on their activities, and only agreed to interviews when they became unavoidable. Perhaps they held fast to their story out of a sense of compassion, knowing that revealing the lie would humiliate the many adults who had come to their defense, unwilling to disappoint those who continued to believe.
The girls ceased sharing any further fairy stories or photographs in the wake of the controversy, leading Doyle to presume that, like Peter Pan’s Wendy Darling, the mere act of growing up had left the girls unable to see (or photograph) any more fairies. Because that’s another crucial part of this story: childhood, innocence, and what is lost as we grow up. Confirmation bias manifests in children in the guise of black-and-white thinking, an absolute belief that things can be good or bad but never in-between.
The fairy photos forced those who encountered them to tap into deeply held personal beliefs that informed the way they consumed the images. Those already predisposed to believe in the paranormal—especially with Doyle’s support—accepted the images without question. Similarly, those who believed unquestioningly that fairies weren’t real could find no other response than to declare the photos fake. This scenario still happens today: A reader brings their own bias to each news story they engage with, finding it easier to dismiss facts that don’t fit their worldview while latching on to those that do. In this way, the Cottingley Fairy Hoax may have instigated a century-long conversation about fake news in which we’re still engaged.
At a crucial junction in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, the novel and play of which were
The Cottingley Fairy Hoax may have instigated a century-long conversation about fake news in which we’re still engaged.
popular at the time of the hoax, the audience is entreated to clap if they believe in fairies. Theaters to this day fill with rapturous applause at this point, the pure faith of a crowd strong enough to bring Tinker Bell back to life. Frances and Elsie brought this same question—do you believe in fairies?— to an international stage, and truth itself was never quite the same again.