What is the line between embellishment and fraud? The former we tacitly acknowledge as necessary for our professional lives. The latter is a permanent black mark to your reputation. How do we delineate between the two? Formal definitions are not helpful here. Instead, it is like the difference between porn and speech — you know it when you see it. And I see it everywhere. 

The most infamous fraudster this past year is the now-expelled Congressman George Santos, whose schemes ranged from the spectacular — inventing an entire employment history out of whole cloth — to the pathetic, as when he allegedly misappropriated campaign funds for the explicit content site OnlyFans. But this is not just limited to politics. We know that politicians play up, omit, and lie about their backgrounds. More and more the bar of conduct has fallen so low that there are few scandals that will elicit a strong reaction anymore. All the fun drama — secret mistresses, bribery, insider trading — are mostly shrugged off, a casualty of our ever growing cynicism. Now even fraud is in danger of being desensitized. 

But fraud is not just limited to politicians, and the worst cases are beyond the political arena. Why are there so many cases of deception over the past few years? The simple answer is there is no one to follow local issues anymore. Non-national media is on its knees — half of the counties in the United States do not have a single paper —and it is grasping towards anything that will move it in the direction of profitability.  The beat writer that used to cover high school athletics? That job disappeared a decade ago. 

The more important loss is that few believe that what goes on in their communities are consistently covered — and even if they do, no one will read it. If the main barrier to local news were people refusing to pay high fees, then there would be a straightforward solution. But even when people are given free coverage, they still refuse to take it. This depressing reality was confirmed in a UPenn experiment where over 2,000 were offered free subscriptions to local newspapers, but less than 2 percent chose to do so. 

Social media makes a poor imitation of the consistent work that local reporters do, and cannot make up for the relationships that provide needed context for their articles. If larger newspapers rely on local news for their own pieces, then how can regional coverage persist if local newsrooms collapse? News does not exist in a vacuum, and like in academia it depends on the prior work of others. This absence continues to create the perfect ground for fraud to grow. 

How else was Bishop Sycamore, a phantom high school with no faculty or campus, able to swim by for years able to pass by undetected? It was not until they were so badly beaten in a ESPN-televised game with IMG academy, an elite athletics school with a national profile, that major news organizations finally ended the obscurity of the fraudulent school. This entire scandal could not have occurred without the absence of local journalists. 

In the last few months, academia has suffered the most due to allegations of fraud. Plagiarism, the fraud of appropriation, is the reason Claudine Gay ultimately had to resign from her presidency of Harvard. The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, also under Harvard, is facing dozens of allegations of data fraud. Incredibly, a professor who studies dishonesty is under administrative leave for allegedly fabricating data. Beyond Cambridge, Stanford’s previous president Marc Tessier-Lavigne, resigned as president after his lab manipulated data that underpinned his research. Accusations of plagiarism have now become a cudgel to hold over opponents. Dissertations that no one reads are now peered through to see if there are any misattributions. Will this lead to a constructive change? No, but it will just yield even more damaged reputations. 

The fact is a vast majority of academics, athletes and politicians will go through their professional lives without resorting to lies and misattributions. Unfortunately, most will not be recognized for their contributions. In the rare cases where these professionals are in the spotlight, fraud crowds out and undermines the reputation of these fields. It should not be a surprise that this period of increasing fraud runs parallel to record lows in the trust that Americans have in institutions – whether in our government, places of worship, or in academia. If this race to the bottom in collective cynicism continues at its current pace, we will be left with an environment that cannot discern the value of expertise anymore. 

A worrying future is not one of constant anger from the public, but rather apathy. That many will resign themselves to categorizing most information as tainted, and incapable — or unwilling — to bother rummaging through to see what is true. 

There are no easy solutions to this trend, but there are a few steps we can take. First, transparency must be centered as a bedrock for public trust. That does not simply mean the information is available buried underneath forms and links, but ease of access. We must decide if coverage of our own communities matter — or if we will just outsource it to the arbitrary algorithms of social media. Life does not just exist at the national level and, without change, the void of information at the regional level will continue to spill even more egregious cases of misconduct that even George Santos would blush at. 

EZANA TEDLA is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at ezana.tedla@yale.edu.

Correction, Feb. 27: One sentence in this column has been changed to clarify that Marc Tessier-Lavigne, a Stanford professor, resigned as Stanford’s president after news broke of his lab having manipulated data.