Obituary Spam Is About to Get Supercharged

The speed of AI has the potential to make an already upsetting situation worse
By Gina Carey,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 25, 2024 9:30 AM CST
Obituary Spam Is About to Get Supercharged
AI is being used to scale obituary spam.   (Getty/fizkes)

Websites that scrape the web for obituaries and repost information at scale (often inaccurately) have met a dangerous friend: artificial intelligence. The Verge's Mia Sato tells the story no one grieving should have to face through the obits of Brian Vastag and Beth Mazur. Obituaries of the friends—a once-married couple who partnered in advocating for people with disabilities—began floating to the top of Google results in December. But there was a catch: Mazur had passed away, but Vastag was still alive. He quickly learned that as AI was pulling information about Mazur to compile articles, his name got caught up in the word soup it spat out. "They didn't know Beth," he said of the generated content. "They don't know anything about her."

Courtney Gould Miller of MKJ Marketing says obituary spam has been a pest on the web for at least 15 years. Search engines favor these enormous sites with long tails of articles over funeral homes, so they continually outrank them. Chris Silver Smith of internet marketing agency Argent Media called obituaries that popped up when his brother-in-law died in a car crash last fall "predatory," per Search Engine Roundtable, but search engines make it easy to monetize suddenly popular terms. "Google abhors a void and I recognize that new and emerging search phrases do not have content—the spammers exploit this by rapidly launching content targeting such phrases," he tweeted. Unchecked, AI lacks the humanity expected when dealing with subjects like death, sometimes treating it like clickbait.

Examples of text Sato found in obituaries about regular people included one saying "the internet is abuzz" about the news, while another directed the "curious and concerned public" to "stay tuned for verified information." While writing about the "slimy cottage industry" of YouTube obits last year, Wired writer Kate Knibbs predicted that AI could "make the situation even more infuriating." She noted that MSN pulled (but has yet to respond to the origin of) an obituary of NBA player Brandon Hunter that readers believe was AI-derived after the company cut staff (its headline read: Brandon Hunter useless at age 42). A spokesperson from Google told the Verge that the company knows how "distressing this content can be" and said it's working on "updates that will significantly improve search results for queries like these." (More obituary stories.)

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