Doug Plummer was the mayor of Sharon Springs, New York, a close-knit community of just more than 500 people.
“He was one of those people that even if you only met him once, you left the meeting convinced you were his best friend,” said friend Corbie Mitleid. “He was incandescent. He was charismatic.”
Plummer lost a battle to cancer in December.
Mitleid said shortly after his passing, she went online to see if an obituary had been published about Plummer, and she was shocked by what she discovered.
“I began to find these fake obits all over the country,” Mitleid said. “People who never knew him … facts were wrong. Some of them said he died in an accident … it was awful.”
“This is a really, really disturbing example of a much larger trend that we’re seeing, which is just the proliferation of AI [artificial intelligence] generated misinformation,” said Grant Fergusson, an Equal Justice Works Fellow for the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).
Fergusson said incorrect obituaries could be caused by what’s known as AI hallucinations. That’s when computer systems jumble different information about a person or subject together, creating content that is factually wrong.
“There is a lot of AI-generated garbage out there and a lot of isn’t malicious in any sense,” Fergusson said. “People are looking for clicks and ad revenue and sometimes obituaries are going to be one of the things that are popping up on websites.”
It’s also leading to concerns that potential scammers could try to cash in on those who are grieving.
“We don’t know what the scammers are going to be doing with these fake obituaries,” said Amy Nofziger, Director of Fraud Victim Support for AARP. “Are they going to set up a fake GoFundMe account? Are they putting malware on these links? We just don’t know. That’s why people really need to be careful.”
We asked Nofziger what people can do to try to avoid accidentally clicking on a fake obituary.
“I always recommend go directly to the source,” Nofziger said. “If you know the funeral home or the people taking care of the arrangements, and oftentimes a family member or a friend is going to send you the announcement … Look at the URL. Is it from out of the country? Don’t click on that.”
In Washington, Congress has been debating how to regulate artificial intelligence and curb the spread of misinformation.
Last year, President Biden signed an executive order outlining AI safety and security.
But so far, there is no requirement that AI-generated content must be labeled, though some platforms like YouTube are voluntarily labeling AI content.
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Mitleid, meanwhile, said she’s hoping lawmakers will figure out how to properly regulate misinformation caused by AI soon to better protect grieving loved ones.
“It is appalling and to trade on other people’s grief is inhumane,” Mitleid said. “Does it need to be heavily regulated? Yes. Will it be? I have my doubts.”
“I think data privacy protections can go very far in regulating harmful AI uses,” Fergusson said. “The more protections, the more regulations we have around how companies can collect and use data, the better.”