In the wake of death, AI-generated obituaries litter search results, turning even private individuals into clickbait.
Illustration by Erik Carter
12 February 2024 | Clipper Media
In late December 2023, several of Brian Vastag and Beth Mazur’s friends were devastated to learn that the couple had suddenly died. Vastag and Mazur had dedicated their lives to advocating for disabled people and writing about chronic illness. As the obituaries surfaced on Google, members of their community began to dial each other up to share the terrible news, even reaching people on vacations halfway around the world.
Except Brian Vastag was very much alive, unaware of the fake obituaries that had leapt to the top of Google Search results. Beth Mazur had in fact passed away on December 21st, 2023. But the spammy articles that now filled the web claimed that Vastag himself had died that day, too.
“[The obituaries] had this real world impact where at least four people that I know of called [our] mutual friends, and thought that I had died with her, like we had a suicide pact or something,” says Vastag, who for a time was married to Mazur and remained close with her. “It caused extra distress to some of my friends, and that made me really angry.”
“Beth Mazur And Brian Vastag Obituary, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS/ME) Killed 2,” reads one article on a website called Eternal Honoring. Another site called In Loving Memories News says, “Beth Mazur And Brian Vastag Obituary, Chronic Fatigue Fyndrome (CFS/ME).” In addition to the articles claiming Vastag was dead, there were numerous bogus obituaries about Mazur, written with clickbait-y headlines and search engine optimized structures.
“…at least four people that I know of called [our] mutual friends, and thought that I had died with her, like we had a suicide pact or something.”
The Verge identified over a dozen websites that published articles about Mazur’s death, along with several YouTube videos of people reading obituaries off a script. The sites have strange, unfamiliar names and maintain a constant stream of articles about a wide range of topics, including the deaths of individuals around the world.
The articles are clunky and provide little information but are filled with keywords for which Google users are searching. Beyond the dozen sites writing about Mazur, there is a sprawling network of high-ranking websites making money when family, friends, and acquaintances go searching for information about a deceased person.
The sites have hallmarks of being generated using artificial intelligence tools. Vastag suspects that misinformation around his apparent death, for example, could be attributed to someone scraping an op-ed that Vastag and Mazur co-authored (one article claiming Vastag had died appears to be an AI summary of the op-ed).
The obituaries are detached and nearly identical to one another, with a few words moved around and repeating inaccurate details, like where Mazur lived. The articles began appearing within a day of an announcement by MEAction Network, a nonprofit she co-founded.
Google has long struggled to contain obituary spam — for years, low-effort SEO-bait websites have simmered in the background and popped to the top of search results after an individual dies.
The sites then aggressively monetize the content by loading up pages with intrusive ads and profit when searchers click on results. Now, the widespread availability of generative AI tools appears to be accelerating the deluge of low-quality fake obituaries.
“Obituary scraping” is a common practice that affects not just celebrities and public figures, but also average, private individuals. Funeral homes have been dealing with obituary aggregator sites for at least 15 years, says Courtney Gould Miller, chief strategy officer at MKJ Marketing, which specializes in marketing funeral services.
The sites trawl news articles and local funeral home websites, looking for initial death announcements that have basic details like name, age, and where a service might be held. They then scrape and republish the content at scale, using templated formats or, increasingly, AI tools.