By now you have seen it. Pope Francis walks across the frame, his mid-range focus. It is brightly lit as if it were early morning. A silver cross hangs around his neck and dangles over his snow-white Balenciaga-inspired puffer jacket. It’s the baller-bishop, the steezy daddy, his holy dripping – and he’s ordained from above.
If you had been on social media at any point this past weekend, you would have seen the image. And – if you were anything like me and apparently millions of other people – you didn’t immediately realize it was AI generated.
This will probably go down in the history books as the first time the public was massively fooled by an AI-generated image. But this is just the beginning, a sign of times to come.
The rise of the AI pope in the foreground
The photo first reached the public in any real sense on Twitter, with this tweet in particular widely shared:
— leon (@skyferori) March 25, 2023
The image itself was created by a Reddit user (interviewed by Buzzfeed here) and posted to the Midjourney subreddit on Friday, along with three other images the AI-driven image generator created based on the prompt.
Then things went haywire in that peculiar online way; gushing memes, people sharing the image with comments like “the pope is swinging pipe with some real fuccboi energy” – and, of course, individuals using Photoshop to the utmost of their power:
Do you wear the…
“Papal puffer parka? Yes. That’s me.” pic.twitter.com/59corwNlCe
— Nick (@nicktotin) March 25, 2023
It wasn’t until later in the weekend that many people who saw or shared the Pope’s fake photo realized it was AI-generated. In some ways, it’s not hard to see that there’s a computer behind the image.
The thing is, as you scroll through thousands of images and videos on social media, it’s easy to overlook these little details. Let’s put it this way: if we had to analyze every single image that hit our feeds, we would never get anything done.
A massive hallucination
We’ve been moving closer and closer to an inflection point lately, largely driven by the launch of Midjourney version five. In fact, we were close to the public in believing that an AI-generated image is real with photos of Trump is arrested. Fortunately, the fact that they looked obviously fake – as well as the lack of corresponding news stories about the incident – meant that the majority of people weren’t fooled at first glance.
But the AI Pope changed all that.
This moment has been a long time coming – and it’s no surprise that it was a celebrity or public figure who caused us to reach this turning point. As journalist Ryan Broderick pointed out on Twitter, one possible explanation for this image in particular that is spreading like wildfire is, “the pope aesthetically exists in the same uncanny valley as most AI art.” This makes weirdness an inherent part of its public nature, meaning these AI-generated images can pass through our bullshit detectors more easily.
I think it goes even further than that. Just think of the increasing surreality of recent years. Picture the picture of Trump in the White House, beaming in front of piles of fast food with a gloomy portrait of Abraham Lincoln behind him. Or that of the shaman of the capital riotsa man with a horned hat and painted face, frolicking around the heart of American politics.
Trump, who can’t even spell hamburger, invited the Clemson Tigers to the White House and served them Wendy’s, McDonalds and Burger King. ????
Now the Trump administration is trying to blame the Democrats for their bad decision: https://t.co/3cV1XcbcHd pic.twitter.com/3tYQaIOeXu
— Complex (@Complex) January 15, 2019
What feels more likely in hindsight? The pope in a stylish jacket or the president of the United States serving McDonald’s in a historic reception room? It’s hard to say, because society itself has become more and more insecure, truth and normality more and more abstract.
Stepping into hyperreality
The photos of the Pope with immaculate drip are generally harmless, the worst outcome is some people think the Catholic Church and the man who ever signed a Lamborghini being materialistic or money-obsessed. But if we apply the same mass belief of a fake image to something like politics, things can quickly go downhill.
AI-generated imagery would be bad enough in times of relative political dignity, but what are we experiencing right now? some refer to as a post-truth era, where many politicians and news outlets are just, well, lying.
Not alone public trust in governments historically low, but this is exacerbated by an aging population in the Western world. Many older people struggle to use their phones, let alone separate AI-generated images from real-life ones.
We are moving forward in all aspects of hyperreality, a concept mentioned by Jean Baudrillard. This is a concept where the real and artificial merge and become indistinguishable. It affects everything from fashion Unpleasant the aesthetics of AI images themselves.
Let’s make it a little more concrete. Midjourney v5 and online communities are already pumping out images that poke at the edges of reality, creating scenarios that didn’t exist. The historical quality of those photographs further undermines our own ability to separate fact from fiction.
Something wild is happening on the Midjourney subreddit.
People tell stories and share photos of historic events, such as the “Great Cascadia” earthquake that devastated Oregon in 2001.
The kicker? It never happened. The images are AI generated. pic.twitter.com/2ziHJYsTDK
— Justine Moore (@venturetwins) March 26, 2023
And it doesn’t take a huge analytical mind to work out what realistic images of, say, staged the moon landing could have on the general population.
The influence of hyperreality does not only mean that things are created, its influence can also go the other way.
Think of the pictures of Boris Johnson standing in front of a bus and falsely stating so the UK will receive an additional £350 million to fund the NHS after leaving the EU. Given the bleak state of modern Britain, the food shortages and skyrocketing inflationit feels unreal, almost AI generated.
And what is stopping politicians from claiming that it is exactly what it is? Surely no one could have been so wrong? It must be AI. A counterfeit. A generated image spread by those who cannot accept the unfettered glory of a finally free United Kingdom?
Think small to do big
Here we get to the point: what can be done to combat this insidious march of AI-generated imagery into an unprepared society? The worrying thing is that no one really knows.
Two years ago, it was impossible to predict that an AI-generated image of the Pope would shake society, or that faked audio from Biden and Trump talk amusingly about games would rip through the internet.
Yes, the EU and the UK have been active Trying to create AI legislation, but even the best rules will lag behind the increasing pace of technology. This does not mean that these rules should be abandoned, but that more should be done around them.
Media studies – once derided as a “doss” subject – are now more important than ever. In this era of prevalent disinformation, being able to analyze the passage of information is an essential skill. This must be extended.
In an AI-generated world, we need to teach people how these systems work, how to check for manipulated images, the value of resources, and basic methods to get as close to the truth as possible. This kind of AI-enabled media studies should not only be rolled out in every school in Europe, but should be offered to schools of all ages.
Another route that I think is essential in this coming era of hyperreality is local action. As humans, we are designed to operate in small groups. It’s one of the reasons the news cycle is so terrifying; we are just not built to take on the problems of the entire world.
As AI spreads, it becomes more difficult to get an accurate picture of the rest of the world. But what we can understand is what immediately surrounds us.
Political divisions can quickly disappear when a hole in the road needs to be repaired or a school needs to raise money. In these situations, you’re dealing with living, breathing people attached to a community, rather than a faceless online mass. In a world of hyperreality, sticking to the aspects we know to be true can help cut through the nonsense.
As the saying goes, think globally, act locally. If we look – in addition to AI education and legislation – to solving local problems with global problems in mind, the emergence of this kind of technology can take place without turning society into some kind of mush. Hell, maybe all sorts of AI generators could be used for fun and harmless activities.
But if we allow this technology to drag us into full hyperreality without taking proper precautions, who knows what might happen – but I don’t have high hopes it will be any good.
And all because someone put the pope in a dripping jacket.