AI in arts

Pope in a coat: Viral AI image fakery spooks its creator

Victor Barreiro Jr.

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Pope in a coat: Viral AI image fakery spooks its creator

DEEPFAKED POPE. Deepfaked images of Pope Francis in a puffy coat go viral online.

trippy_art_special on Reddit

The person who used Midjourney to create the fakes of Pope Francis in a puffy coat did not intend malice, though the images are now reportedly being co-opted by Church critics

As generative artificial intelligence goes on to develop more fake images, whether it’s pornographic deepfakes or created images of public figures like Donald Trump getting arrested, it’s sometimes the innocuous uses of generative AI that spark epiphanies for their creator and inadvertently make a mess of the world at large.

This can be especially true for people spoofing images of the Pope wearing a stylish jacket.

Making its debut about three days ago were images of Pope Francis wearing a fancy, puffy coat. These images were taken at face value by some, leading the images to go viral without any express warning that they were created using generative AI and shared on the r/midjourney subreddit.

Even hoax-busting site Snopes had to weigh in with its own page on the “Pope in a Coat” fiasco.

According to Buzzfeed News in a report on Tuesday, March 28, the images were set up by Pablo Xavier, a 31-year-old US construction worker who did not divulge his last name as he was worried about being attacked for creating the images.

Funny art and unintended consequences

According to Pablo Xavier, all he wanted to do was create funny art.

“I’m trying to figure out ways to make something funny because that’s what I usually try to do,” he said.

“I try to do funny stuff or trippy art – psychedelic stuff. It just dawned on me: I should do the Pope. Then it was just coming like water: ‘The Pope in Balenciaga puffy coat, Moncler, walking the streets of Rome, Paris,’ stuff like that,” he added.

While the creations weren’t meant to be a malicious jab at the pontiff or at organized religion, it did lead to his account getting banned on Reddit, and to unintended consequences.

Namely, his images were being co-opted by critics of the Catholic Church, who wanted to slam the Church’s lavish spending. He said that “people are running with it and thought it was real without questioning it.”

“I feel like shit,” he said, when asked about how he felt about the co-opting of his art in unintended ways. “It’s crazy.”

Pablo Xavier has said he now has a better appreciation for the impact of AI-generated images. “I didn’t even think about that [before],” he told Buzzfeed News, adding that public figures may very well be the line that shouldn’t be crossed when it comes to generative AI imagery.

At the very least, the average internet user may want to check their biases and vet images now, especially if it seems – or looks – too good to be plausible. –

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Victor Barreiro Jr.

Victor Barreiro Jr is part of Rappler's Central Desk. An avid patron of role-playing games and science fiction and fantasy shows, he also yearns to do good in the world, and hopes his work with Rappler helps to increase the good that's out there.