A photo of the pope wearing what can be described as a swagged-out puffy jacket has been spotted online. This photo has become one of the most widely shared AI-generated images around. Can the pope just assume the title of the drip priest, the Supreme Pontiff, the bishop of Balenciaga already?
The image appears to have surfaced online for the first time on Friday in a subreddit for artificial intelligence image generator Midjourney. It has quickly gained popularity on Twitter and other social platforms over the weekend, first as a meme and then as the focus of debunking. Chrissy Teigen started tweeting about it on Sunday, which is a good sign that an internet joke has gained traction.
According to Teigen’s tweet which steered the opinion of other internet users “I thought the pope’s puffer jacket was real and didn’t give it a second thought. no way am I surviving the future of technology.” In her replies, someone said they thought calling it AI-generated was the joke, and Teigen responded: “Oh man now I’m REAL confused. Is it real?? I hate myself lol.”
Without a doubt, the image is not real. In addition to being one of three uploaded on the Midjourney subreddit (Midjourney typically produces four images in answer to each question), the image also clearly displays AI generation, with some prominently smeared elements. If you look closely at the image below, on the right you will see the edge of the glasses lens somehow transition into its own shadow, in the middle is a crucifix without proper right angles that depicts Jesus as if he had been sculpted in clay and sat on it. Other examples of AI generation are all indicative of a system that knows the surface of reality but not the underlying rules that govern how physical objects interact.
Yet, as much as flagging these flaws feels pointless, we can’t take away how realistic the image appears, at least to a beyond-persuasive level. As of the day it went viral, if you scrolled through it in your feed, you most likely didn’t think twice about it. You could have tweeted “dang the pope drips unapologetically” and carried on with your day.
Yet, it’s important to examine the factors that led to this particular image going viral since they provide important information on how AI fakes may be disseminated in the next months. The image gained traction as a result of the specific alignment of subject and aesthetic; fooling the public with the fake image worked because of how we currently consume images we come across online.
Let’s discuss the pope himself first. The image of the pope in particular supports the hoax, as journalist Ryan Broderick pointed out on Twitter. According to Broderick’s theory, the pope’s aesthetics are in the same uncanny valley as the majority of AI art, which may explain why it has managed to trick so many people. To put it more plainly: pictures of the pope frequently go viral because of his penchant for fashionable attire.
As highlighted by trend-spotter Ayesha Siddiqi, the bishop of Rome has a strong Italian fashion sense, and the Vatican was compelled to refute reports that the pope wore high-end loafers. The official refutation was, “The pope, in summary, does not wear Prada, but Christ.” However, there are so many dripping images of Pope Francis online that people were able to match this most recent AI fake with actual ones, such as the pope signing a Lamborghini. The pope’s contrast between spiritual power and swagger is what turns him into such a meme so frequently.
Also, the fact that the pope is well-known adds credibility to why bizarre representations of him will surface. This is a result of the image-creation style used by AI art generators. It’s a distinctive appearance that is tightly linked to Midjourney’s software, which recently received an update to improve the calibre of its output, leading to a mini-wave of convincing AI impersonations that are currently sweeping the internet. It also helps that Midjourney’s training data has many images of famous people, making them simpler to generate.
Let’s call this style hyperrealism, why? Firstly because it is the adjective frequently associated with text prompts to generate such images and also because the aesthetic relates to Jean Baudrillard’s concept of the hyperreal, a culture in which simulations take the place of reality.
According to The Verge, hyperrealism in the context of AI images is an aesthetic defined by perfect lighting and glossy surfaces, dramatic poses and by saturated colours. It’s stylized and exaggerated — the sort of image we already associate with celebrities, whose likenesses are reproduced with such abundance and deliberation that they often already look fake.
These factors, put together account for why some AI images have become popular more popular than others. The swag pope is not the only one having a moment with AI, fake pictures of Elon Musk holding hands with AOC; French President Emmanuel Macron running through clouds of tear gas; or Donald Trump being arrested. This is both alarming and heartening at the same time, alarming because it shows there is currently a limit to how convincing AI fakes can be, and reassuring because the pace of technological advancement makes it unlikely that any current reassurance will remain valid for very long.
When it comes to AI images, there is just one fact that is certain: they will only become more realistic. They are undoubtedly not constrained by their present aesthetic. They will eventually become “hyperreal,” as Baudrillard coined the concept: completely distorting the boundaries between the imaginary and the real.