How AI broke the news identifying TRU car crash victim | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

Would you like to subscribe to our newsletter?

Kamloops News

How AI broke the news identifying TRU car crash victim

The memorial for Owyn McInnis lines the sidewalk near the Nov. 29 crash site, just across the road from Thompson Rivers University.

After a horrific car crash killed one Thompson Rivers University student and seriously injured two others, it was artificial intelligence that broke the news about the identity of the deceased Kamloops volleyball player.

The first websites to publish Owyn McInnis' name were spreading misinformation about his life and his death, hours before it was confirmed and reported by local news outlets.

He was one of three Thompson Rivers University athletes in a Nov. 29 car crash. McInnis died in the collision and the two others are still recovering from serious injuries.

News of his death appeared on dozens of uncanny websites on Nov. 30, hours before it was reported by any Kamloops-based publications. It appears as though artificial intelligence beat reporters and local authorities to the announcement, pairing the very real and tragic news of his death with numerous falsehoods.

Some of those 'stories' claimed the crash was on Highway 5 near Barriere, while another claimed McInnis was born in Kansas and doesn't mention Kamloops at all. Even in the days after, another claims in its Dec. 5 headline he died in a motorcycle crash, but doesn't mention a motorcycle in the story itself.

The news appeared on dozens of websites, often roughly 300 words, and make vague claims about his life and his impact on friends and family, sometimes referring to McInnis as "they" or neglecting to fill a space in the story's template that should include a date. It instead reads "[date]".

Dozens of Youtube videos, narrated by computer-generated voices, used photos from crash scenes completely unrelated to the Kamloops collision.

READ MORE: Kamloops crash: Third victim, from Kelowna, in critical condition

Members of McInnis' family did not respond to inquiries from that morning, and a Thompson Rivers University spokesperson later requested the family not be contacted by reporters.

Police did not identify who died in the collision, but learned McInnis' identity the next day through his mother's post to social media.

Owyn McInnis died in a car crash near Thompson Rivers University on Nov. 30, 2023.
Owyn McInnis died in a car crash near Thompson Rivers University on Nov. 30, 2023.
Image Credit: INSTAGRAM/Owyn McInnis

None of the AI websites attributed her social media post as the source, but they all published information about him and used his photo before it was reported by news media or his family posted an obituary.

Other media, RCMP and a Thompson Rivers University spokesperson all said they did not share his name prior to publishing his identity on Nov. 30.

READ MORE: Kamloops RCMP identify victim in May homicide

It's likely the source for the confirmation also came from the social media post by McInnis' mother, which human-generated publications followed hours later.

"It makes sense they'd have some sort of social media scraping, maybe looking for keywords. Once they have some idea of what happened, generating an article is pretty straightforward," Dr. Vered Shwartz, associate professor of computer science at UBC, said.

Some of the computer-generated headlines are seen in these screenshots.
Some of the computer-generated headlines are seen in these screenshots.
Image Credit: SCREENSHOT

While it's difficult to determine why a website with artificially generated news may focus on obituaries or breaking news of deaths in car crashes in a small Canadian city, she said it's likely they are simply meant to generate clicks to sell advertisements. The computer models that generate the stories, however, are often wrong and operate similar to an auto-complete function on a smartphone.

"These models can generate text that looks very well formed," Shwartz said. "It looks like a journalist-written article, but at the same time they tend to hallucinate or make up facts."

This is especially so, Shwarz said, for people like McInnis who aren't famous, for whom there's very little background available on the web. The computer-generated writer fills in the blanks because it can't find enough information online.

Computer-generated news content is a growing phenomenon online, with nearly 60% of Canadians saying they've encountered misleading or false AI news this year, according to The Canadian Journalism Foundation.

Its survey also found more than 70% of Canadians expect governments cannot regulate AI companies, while nearly half said they aren't confident in their ability to distinguish what's written by a human or AI.

While some reputable news agencies have begun to experiment with AI, making sure it spits out accurate information is troublesome. It could free up time for journalists to report original content, but one major US publication recently flew too close to the sun.

Sports Illustrated was caught after it not only used AI to generate stories, but the stories were also attributed to an AI-generated author, complete with a name and a headshot.

Shwarz said the language models continue to improve, making it even more difficult to distinguish whether something was written by a human or not. There are web tools that can help investigate text or images to determine whether or not a piece of media is computer-generated, but they are steadily become obsolete as the models become more human-like, Shwarz said.

"I think anyone can get fooled by it. I consider myself really skeptical, and I don't think I'm completely safe from believing something that might be fake," she said.

Meanwhile, an online fundraiser was recently launched to support McInnis and his family, with those that knew him now speaking on his life and his impact on others. 

"From the day he was born, Owyn brought immense joy and warmth into our lives. As a varsity athlete, he showcased not only exceptional skill but also unwavering dedication to his craft," the fundraiser reads, which has now collected more than $10,000.

The two survivors in the crash are recovering from the crash, with fundraisers launched for both Owen Waterhouse and Riley Brinnen.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Levi Landry or call 250-819-3723 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

We welcome your comments and opinions on our stories but play nice. We won't censor or delete comments unless they contain off-topic statements or links, unnecessary vulgarity, false facts, spam or obviously fake profiles. If you have any concerns about what you see in comments, email the editor in the link above. SUBSCRIBE to our awesome newsletter here.

News from © iNFOnews, 2023

  • Popular vernon News
View Site in: Desktop | Mobile