Fairies AND FAKE NEWS

Bitch: A Feminist Response to Pop Culture - - DEPARTMENT OF EVERYTHING - —ANN FOS­TER

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.

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