The earth is flat. Two plus two equals five. Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election. These statements are untrue, yet there are people who still believe them and countless other examples of mis- and disinformation that dominate our news cycles and, worse, underlie many of our laws and policies. Fake news has so saturated public discourse that it is no longer possible to dismiss such statements as the stuff of conspiracy theorists alone. Conditioned by the proliferation of fake news, we are all increasingly liable to confuse what is true with what is not.

The difficulty of differentiating between real news and fake news, however, is not recent. Fake news has been around for as long as people have been communicating with each other, leading many to draw false conclusions about the world. In the “Of Note” contributions in this issue, Audrey Jaffe and Mark Osteen comment on two articles that document notable instances of fake news in the nineteenth century. At the heart of Lydia G. Fash’s “Fake News!!! Poe’s Balloon Story and the Penny Papers!” is an 1844 hoax Edgar Allan Poe perpetrated on his reading audience concerning a supposed transatlantic balloon voyage. Similarly, in William F. Long’s “‘I Am Grateful, and Wish to Show It’: Charles Dickens and Fake News,” the fake news in question, published some twenty years after Poe’s hoax, revolved around a letter attributed to Dickens but not written by him, in which he allegedly promised to donate the earnings from his next public reading to the almshouses that served printers in need.

Taking their cue from the Fash and Long articles themselves, Jaffe and Osteen are primarily concerned with the light these fake news stories from the past shed on our predicament today. Of course, both nineteenth-century stories differ in important ways from the way fake news is manufactured and circulated today, but they have more in common than one would think. For example, both Jaffe and Osteen comment on the persistence of the Poe and Dickens stories to gain traction even after they had been exposed as hoaxes—a problem shared with many fake news stories today. More important, they question what it is that makes people so receptive to fake news. For one thing, both contributors point to the human desire for speed, which has remained the same over time; fake news circulates rapidly, which seems to “guarantee veracity,” as Osteen puts it, but at the same time undermines it, rendering us, as Jaffe writes, “particularly susceptible to the excitement and overstimulation of what we believe to be the newest information.” Even when they are intended to be playful or to make us more careful readers, fake news stories can inflict unspeakable damage. “Instead of encouraging us to learn from them, they teach us how not to learn,” Jaffe notes. Osteen adds, “Fake news undermines not just literary culture but also the very basis of civil society—trust.” To these timely and sober warnings, I would add only that when fake news stories provide what could be considered corroborating evidence of their own, as they increasingly do, they mimic the very lines of evidentiary inquiry by which we are asked to tell truth from fiction, affecting not just what we know but, crucially, how we know it.