Fake Obituaries Tarnish Small-Town Mayor’s Legacy

Doug Plummer served as a beloved mayor in the heart of Sharon Springs, New York, a close-knit community of just over 500 people. Known for his warmth and charisma, Plummer left a lasting impression on everyone he met. “He was one of those people that even if you only met him once, you left the meeting convinced you were his best friend,” reminisced his friend Corbie Mitleid. “He was incandescent. He was charismatic.”

Plummer’s life was tragically cut short in December after a battle with cancer. In the wake of his passing, Mitleid sought out his obituary online, hoping to see a tribute that reflected his impact. Instead, she was met with a distressing discovery.

“I began to find these fake obits all over the country,” said Mitleid. “People who never knew him… facts were wrong. Some of them said he died in an accident… it was awful.”

This unsettling phenomenon is part of a larger issue: the rise of AI-generated misinformation. Grant Fergusson, an Equal Justice Works Fellow for the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), highlighted the problem. “This is a really, really disturbing example of a much larger trend that we’re seeing, which is just the proliferation of AI-generated misinformation,” he explained.

Fergusson pointed out that these fake obituaries are often a result of AI hallucinations. This occurs when AI systems erroneously combine disparate pieces of information, resulting in factually incorrect content. “There is a lot of AI-generated garbage out there and a lot of it isn’t malicious in any sense,” Fergusson noted. “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.”

Beyond the spread of false information, there are concerns about potential scams targeting the grieving. Amy Nofziger, Director of Fraud Victim Support for AARP, expressed her worries. “We don’t know what the scammers are going to be doing with these fake obituaries,” she said. “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.”

Nofziger advises caution when navigating online obituaries. “I always recommend going directly to the source,” she suggested. “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.”

The proliferation of AI-generated misinformation has prompted debates in Washington about how best to regulate artificial intelligence. Last year, President Biden signed an executive AI safety and security order. However, no mandate requires AI-generated content to be labeled, although some platforms like YouTube have taken voluntary steps in this direction.

Mitleid hopes lawmakers will act swiftly to regulate AI-related misinformation to protect those grieving. “It is appalling and to trade on other people’s grief is inhumane,” she stated. “Does it need to be heavily regulated? Yes. Will it be? I have my doubts.”

Fergusson added that strong data privacy protections could significantly help manage harmful AI uses. “The more protections, the more regulations we have around how companies can collect and use data, the better,” he said.

As the debate over AI regulation continues, the community of Sharon Springs remembers Doug Plummer for the genuine connections he fostered and the positive impact he had on their lives. His legacy serves as a reminder of the need for careful stewardship of technology to honor the memories of those who have passed away, free from the distortions of misinformation.

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