Have you seen that photo of Pope Francis wearing a gigantic white puffer coat? It’s been going viral on social media platforms like Reddit and Twitter over the past couple of days. But it’s completely fake.
The image was created using Midjourney, an artificial intelligence tool that can generate amazingly realistic fake images. The image was then shared on Reddit before making its way to Twitter over the weekend, where most people seemed to think it was real.
Recently, Midjourney has been used to create photo-realistic images of former president Donald Trump getting arrested. And Trump even shared a fake AI-generated image of himself kneeling down to pray. At first glance, the images all look like they could be real photos. But they’re all computer-created forgeries of reality.
As internet sleuths have discovered while debunking these kinds of photo-realistic creations, one of the easiest ways to determine if an image might be AI-generated is to look at the hands. Midjourney has tremendous difficulty generating hands, and this image of the Pope is no different—however, it seems like a safe bet that this won’t be the case forever.
The fake Pope image fooled plenty of people, including far-right influencer Ian Miles Cheong, who tweeted, “The Pope is a fashion icon. Respect the drip.”
“What would be the name of the Pope Francis lifestyle brand?” tweeted Don Moynihan, a professor at Georgetown.
Moynihan included two other photos of the Pope, both of which are real.
These AI image generators, which also include OpenAI’s DALL-E and Stable Diffusion, allow anyone to simply describe the image they want to see using text. The images are able to be created because the tools have been trained on literally millions of images from the web, including many images that are protected by copyright. And it’s that last part which has invited lawsuits by companies like Getty Images, which argues that its intellectual property is being infringed.
Getty may have a case, as documents filed in court show that Stable Diffusion’s image generator sometimes even includes a crude element that looks like the Getty watermark. There’s no denying what these new super-powerful software programs have been looking at to create their images.
The world of AI-generated images is relatively new, with companies rolling out their tools to the public only within the past four months. But fake photos have been around since the invention of photography, and only time will tell whether these new AI programs will create more disinformation and misinformation than Adobe Photoshop allowed.
Whereas Photoshop takes some real skill to pull off a convincing fake, anyone can now type in any text prompt at Midjourney and instantly see their creation come to life. And with the 2024 presidential election just over the horizon—which will unfortunately include an anti-democratic former president who loves fake photos—things could get messy very quickly.