The rise of obituary spam

In late December 2023, several friends of Brian Vastag and Beth Mazur were devastated to learn of the couple’s sudden death. Vastag and Mazur had dedicated their lives to advocating for people with disabilities and writing about chronic diseases. When the obituaries appeared on Google, members of their community began calling each other to share the terrible news, even reaching people on vacation on the other side of the world.

Only Brian Vastag was alive and well, unaware of the fake obituaries that had risen to the top of Google search results. Beth Mazur had actually passed away on December 21, 2023. But the spammy articles that now filled the internet claimed that Vastag himself had also died that day.

“[The obituaries] had this real world impact with at least four people I know calling [our] mutual friends, and thought I had died with her, as if we had made a suicide pact or something,” says Vastag, who was married to Mazur for a time and was close to her. “It caused additional distress for some of my friends, and that really made me angry.”

“Beth Mazur and Brian Vastag Obituary, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS/ME) Killed 2,” reads an 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 fake obituaries about Mazur, written with clickbait-like headlines and search engine optimized structures.

“…at least four people I know called [our] mutual friends, and thought I had died with her, like we had made a suicide pact or something.

The edge identified more than a dozen websites that published articles about Mazur’s death, along with several YouTube videos of people reading obituaries from a script. The sites have strange, unfamiliar names and maintain a constant stream of articles on a wide range of topics, including the deaths of individuals around the world. The articles are clunky and provide little information, but are full of keywords that Google users search for. In addition to the dozens of sites that write about Mazur, there is an extensive network of high-ranking websites that make money when family, friends and acquaintances look for information about a deceased person.

The sites are characterized by the fact that they are generated using artificial intelligence tools. Vastag suspects that misinformation surrounding his apparent death, for example, could be attributed to someone who deleted an op-ed that Vastag and Mazur co-authored (an article claiming Vastag had died appears to be an AI summary of the op-ed). The obituaries are distant and nearly identical to each other, with a few words moved and repeating inaccurate details, such as where Mazur lived. The articles appeared within a day of an announcement by MEAction Network, a nonprofit she co-founded.

Google has long struggled to curb obituary spam. For years, SEO bait websites simmered in the background with little effort, rising to the top of search results after a person died. The sites then aggressively monetize the content by loading pages with intrusive advertisements and making profits when searchers click on results. Now, the widespread availability of generative AI tools appears to be accelerating the flood of low-quality fake obituaries.

‘Obituary death’ is a common practice that affects not only celebrities and public figures, but also ordinary private individuals. Funeral homes have been dealing with obituary aggregation sites for at least 15 years, says Courtney Gould Miller, chief strategy officer at MKJ Marketing, which specializes in marketing funeral services. The sites scour news articles and local funeral home websites, looking for initial death notices with basic information such as name, age and where a service can be held. They then scrape the content and republish it at scale, using templates or, increasingly, AI tools.

The obituaries are detached and virtually identical to each other, with a few words moved and repeating inaccurate details

Legacy.com is the largest, most established version of aggregators, but tons of smaller, sketchier websites are popping up all the time. Some of these sites contain incorrect information, such as the date or location of a memorial service. Others collect orders for flowers or gifts that don’t arrive on time, frustrating family and friends and causing headaches for local funeral homes, Gould Miller says. Collection sites regularly outnumber actual funeral homes that have a relationship with grieving families.

“I think [Google is] looking at who has the most backlinks, who has the most authority, who has the most traffic, the typical things that their algorithms look at. An aggregator will obviously have more of that than a local funeral home,” says Gould Miller. “Isn’t it the core of the work for the aggregators? They know that Google’s search algorithms are on their side.”

“Google always strives to surface high-quality information, but data gaps are a common challenge for all search engines,” said Google spokesperson Ned Adriance. The edge in an email. “We understand how disturbing this content can be and we are working to launch updates that will significantly improve search results for these types of queries.” Adriance said Google has terminated several YouTube channels flagged by The edge who shared SEO-bait obituaries and obituaries, but refused to say whether the flagged websites violated Google’s spam policy.

After Vastag discovered the articles claiming that he too had died, he reported them to Google, hoping that the pages would be removed from search results. The company sent back a canned response saying the flagged sites did not violate its policies.

Some websites publish a constant stream of clickbait news articles about the deceased. AI has only made the problem worse, making it harder to determine the legitimacy of obituaries at first glance, when grieving family and friends don’t look closely at an article’s URL or its author.

One site called The Thaiger is filled with news on every topic imaginable. The writers follow viral news cycles, such as political commotion at Ivy League colleges. Under the Thailand news category: “Man’s public poop in Thai car showroom creates online buzz.” In the Trending section you will find articles such as ‘Pedro Pascal’s surprising revelation steals the show at the 2024 Emmy Awards’ and other pastiches of early 2010s Internet clickbait.

Stories about deaths are often labeled as “trending,” even when there is no indication the person was known outside the community

But among the hundreds of celebrity gossip articles and TikTok video recaps are morbid, robotic articles about the deaths of regular people who weren’t public figures. Writers at The Thaiger – based in Bangkok, Thailand – sometimes publish more than twenty stories a day, including the SEO obituaries about people who died from illnesses; students who died by suicide; and minors involved in fatal car accidents. The stories follow a similar structure, sometimes using identical vague sentences about the deceased. Stories about deaths are often labeled as “trending” even when there is no indication that the individual was known outside the community, and the articles appear to amalgamate or rewrite local news reports, social media posts, or actual family obituaries.

Content on The Thaiger has the characteristics of being generated using artificial intelligence. The obituaries are written with an unobtrusive gravitas, using unnatural phrases such as the “indelible mark” someone left behind, or his “untimely demise,” but without any factual details about his life. The articles are written like typical obituaries and news articles, but do not include quotes from family or friends of the deceased and do not cite outside reporting.

Obituaries appear on The Thaiger have an inhuman, inappropriate quality. Some articles promise a “comprehensive account” of the death, or that “the Internet is buzzing with interest in the event.” “Further updates are expected, and the curious and concerned public are advised to stay abreast of verified information,” reads an article about the death of a woman from Calgary, Canada. Every corner of the site is full of advertisements.

Thaiger’s staff page lists eight writers, none of whom appear to have a LinkedIn profile, and at least three of whom appear to have AI-generated images in their headshots. For example, ‘Luke Chapman’, who reports on Australian and New Zealand news, wears an open button-down shirt with buttons on both sides. ‘Jane Nelson’, who is described as ‘a seasoned financial journalist’, wears a gold chain that disappears halfway down her chest. Even for the profiles with photos that appear to be real people, the writers are like ghosts; there is no record of these journalists anywhere else.

The Thaiger and CEO Darren Lyons did not respond to multiple requests for comment. After The edge When asked about the AI-generated portraits, The Thaiger quietly removed the authors from the staff page, along with their archive of articles.

On another site called FreshersLive, articles about dead people are ruthlessly optimized for Google. Keywords like “Beth Mazur,” “MEAction Network,” and “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome” appear in every few sentences. The text is split into several sections with SEO-driven subheadings, such as “Who was Beth Mazur?” and “Is Beth Mazur dead?” There’s even a frequently asked questions section at the bottom – a darker, crueler version of a tactic found all over the internet.

In an emailed response to The edge‘s questions, a person who identified himself only as ‘Dilip’ denied that the site was using AI tools, and said staff are trying to contact the deceased’s family. When asked how FreshersLive finds and assesses deaths to write about, “Dilip” said: “That is highly confidential.”

“Whoever came up with it [the articles] – they didn’t know Beth, they don’t know anything about her,” Vastag said The edge. “They have no right to publish an obituary about her.”

Vastag’s own obituary for Mazur was published on January 12, weeks after her death. And while the spam sites were faster, only Vastag’s obituary reflects the actual person that Mazur was.

She worked in tech before she became ill – during the last months of her life she had also experimented with generative AI tools such as ChatGPT, Vastag said. The edge. She was funny and smart, and friends and colleagues remember her as a visionary organizer who did not seek recognition for her work. She planned and hosted themed parties for friends, danced at Burning Man, and helped patients access care and resources. Of course, none of the spam obituaries mention these facts.

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