AI and Obituaries: Did AI Write This Death Announcement?

Apr 16, 2024

AI and Obituaries: Did AI Write This Death Announcement?

For many, obituaries play an essential role in mourning. They notify community members of a person’s passing and pay tribute to their life.

While the practice of sharing death notices originated in ancient Rome, modern obituaries developed in the 1930s and ’40s. Today’s format typically has four parts: a death announcement, a short biography, a survivors section, and information about funeral services or a celebration of life.

Using Artificial Intelligence to Create Obituaries

With recent technological advancements, artificial intelligence can now generate many types of content – including obituaries. In some instances, AI-generated content may be a helpful tool for friends and family members struggling with the emotional process of creating a written tribute, but AI also presents some peculiar and even disturbing problems.

According to Tech Crunch, one AI tool called Empathy assists survivors with the writing process. After users complete a survey, it generates AI text for the loved one who passed using the information provided. This service could help people whose grief hampers their ability to write an obituary who would not otherwise use professional writing services.

Yet when someone who did not know the deceased person uses AI to create an obituary, the results can be inaccurate and insensitive. When AI “hallucinates,” it produces made-up, incorrect information.

Undoubtedly, reading a death notice can stir up complex emotions. Seeing inaccurate or even outright false information can be particularly distressing.

After professional basketball player Brandon Hunter passed away in 2023, Microsoft published a piece calling him “useless at 42.” The publication of this insensitive and strangely worded online tribute led to speculation that AI created it. Artificial intelligence may have attempted to insert “useless” as a synonym for “dead,” said one news outlet.

There has been a rise in inaccurate, AI-generated obituaries since late 2023. This can pose a certain level of concern for those who have recently lost a loved one. In some bizarre cases, a purportedly deceased individual is still alive, and the fake obituary causes distress and confusion for their family and friends. In 2021, the head of social media platform Instagram found himself locked out of his own app after a fake announcement about his death circulated online. AI-created obits do not just affect celebrities but also target private individuals.

What Is Driving the Increase in AI Obituaries?

Some websites use inaccurate, AI-generated obituaries to make money by generating online traffic. According to one article on technology website The Verge, these sites use search engine optimization (SEO) tools to ensure their article comes up first when someone uses Google or another search engine to look for information about a person’s death. The more people view the content, the more revenue the sites can gain from their advertisers.

These questionable websites provide articles about various topics. The pieces are typically poorly written and do not offer much information about the person’s life. Instead, they use repetitive keywords for SEO purposes and dramatic headings to draw people to the website.

Obituary Scraping

AI has fueled the practice of obituary scraping, which funeral homes have dealt with for more than a decade.

Obit aggregator sites such as Legacy.com and other, smaller sites search news articles and funeral home websites for death announcements. They take basic information like a person’s name, age, and details about the time and location of their funeral or memorial service. Using templates and now AI, they rearrange the content and republish it on websites riddled with ads.

In addition to profiting off the information, these websites can make life more difficult for survivors. Some sites provide inaccurate information about the date or time of the funeral. Others may ask for money for flowers or gifts, which do not arrive in time for the service.

Since these tributes use SEO to reach the top of Google results, they can obscure genuine obituaries written by close family and friends or reputable professional writers. Obituary scraping can frustrate those who want their obits to honor their loved one.

How to Spot a Fake Obituary

Several signs can indicate a scraped or AI-generated obit. For example, keep in mind the following to avoid clicking on fake obituaries by mistake:

  • Generic language about the person, like “passed peacefully” and “will be missed”
  • Lack of details or personal anecdotes
  • Repetitive words, such as repeating “funeral” or “memorial”
  • Sensational phrases, like “shocking death” or “unbelievable story”
  • Illogical narratives or unrealistic claims
  • A website with an unfamiliar name (Instead, consult a reputable source)

Responding to Inaccurate Content

Encountering an inaccurate obituary for a loved one or close friend can be distressing. You can take steps to protect yourself and others in your community.

  • If the questionable obituary appears on a reputable platform, report it to the administrators. (Note that free AI content detectors exist as well, which may help you identify when a tribute is fake.)
  • If you’ve lost someone, share the legitimate version of the obituary and notify others in your circle to be on the lookout for potential misinformation.
  • Seek legal advice from your attorney. When the phony obituary seeks to carry out a scam or causes severe emotional distress or harm, you may be able to take legal action. While pinpointing the source of the fabricated information can be challenging, your attorney can help you determine your next steps.

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