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An AI-generated ‘Balenciaga pope’ fooled us all. How much does it matter?

The viral image of Pope Francis in a puffy white coat points to our AI future — for better or worse

Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience Wednesday at St. Peter's Square in the Vatican in his real attire. His fashion choices are often the source of intrigue, which could explain why an AI-generated image of him in a puffy coat went viral. (Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images)
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Look: The pope’s clothes are almost always interesting. They’re either surreal because they’re arcane and generically holy (an old man traverses the world wearing a long robe and matching hat, like Gandalf) or because they’re startlingly contemporary (the same old man also wears a Swatch watch). The very fact that his daily clothes and accoutrements have to be in keeping with sacred tradition can fascinate, too. His leather loafers should be red like martyrs’ blood; the car he rides is often specially modified for him to stand up to greet the faithful who gather to see him.

So when a photo surfaced this weekend, just before the fifth Sunday of Lent, of Pope Francis in a long, white, trendy-looking puffer coat with his traditional pectoral cross and white zucchetto cap, it’s not hard to imagine what happened next: People went wild. “OKAAYYY,” wrote one Twitter user who shared the image. “Ayo. Blessed be,” wrote another. This particular puffer — gargantuan and gleaming, with a cinched waist and imposing oversize hood — landed in that slim Venn diagram sweet spot between “what the pope might actually, practically wear to keep warm on a cold day” and “what the wealthiest 26-year-olds are currently wearing around SoHo.”

The image was completely fake. According to the fact-checking website Snopes, the image was created using the generative AI program Midjourney and later appeared on the subreddit r/Midjourney.

The coat, for anyone looking to Steal the Pontiff’s Look, resembles Balenciaga’s $3,550 Long CB Down Jacket for women as well as Rick Owens’s some $3,000 Duvet Jumbo Peter Coat. Both are black, but one has to imagine that the designers, like the auto manufacturers who make each new popemobile, might allow a few custom modifications if it were Il Papa asking.

The fake coat fooled a lot of people — and it fooled a lot of people in the same week that saw fake, AI-generated images of cops accosting former president Donald Trump. Yes, suddenly it seems all too obvious how artificial intelligence could easily be used to create propaganda, how it could easily be weaponized as a tool of destabilization.

But, that said: The Pope Coat Incident makes clear that AI can and will also be used for the equivalent of making hyper-realistic cartoons. For dreaming up fantasy fashion statements, combining any given celebrity with any given clothing ensemble like an infinite set of paper dolls. For creating the photographic equivalent of fanfic. It may have been one of the first true mass AI misinformation events, in other words, but the puffer-pope saga was also … pretty low-stakes.

Last week, as rumors that Trump might be arrested imminently swirled, the realistic-looking images of that still-hypothetical event — also created by Midjourney — began to flood social media. While most images, upon closer inspection, were clearly generated by AI, many experts saw their arrival and proliferation as a harbinger of AI’s power to intentionally mislead. On Thursday, Trump shared an image on his site, Truth Social, that depicted his likeness kneeling in prayer under dramatic lighting. It began making the rounds among his supporters but was revealed soon afterward to be a “deepfake,” hallmarked as such by the strange not-quite-lifelike presences in the background and certain telltale distortions of aspects of fake-Trump’s body.

The Popecoat, then, arrived at a moment of clear and justifiable alarm over AI-generated imagery, and when its realism had advanced perceptibly even from their capabilities a matter of weeks ago.

“The meme likely went viral because of the uncertainty about whether it was real or fake,” said Arvind Narayanan, a professor of computer science at Princeton University who studies AI. Because many more people have access to this kind of technology, it will be important for social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and Reddit to develop better tools to quickly label misinformation, he said. “It goes without saying that we can never again assume an image is authentic because it looks realistic.”

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Deepfakes have certainly fooled people before: a fake “drunk” Nancy Pelosi video in 2019, a Mark Zuckerberg “announcement” about Facebook ads, also in 2019. But the dripped-out pope, created by a 31-year-old Chicago construction worker who came up with the idea while on shrooms, is a reminder that not everything created by AI is made with the intent to pass itself off as authentic. (“I just thought it was funny to see the pope in a funny jacket,” the construction worker told BuzzFeed.) There’s a word, after all, for the depiction of things that aren’t necessarily real: art.

One person not fooled by Balenciaga Pope was Jamie Cohen, an assistant professor of media studies at Queens College.

“Immediately, I knew it was not real,” Cohen said, and not just because the pope “would never wear” a $3,000 designer coat.

“There is an AI-ness to the photos that you can tell. If you’ve seen enough AI imagery, you can get a sense of what is and isn’t real,” he said. But he did think the image, as a meme, was “wonderful.”

“It fits directly into the atmosphere of people making fun of high style or high fashion,” Cohen said. “Because he’s the pope and his specific interest as pope is looking after the poor and looking after those with less advantage, the irony is so on the surface, it’s fantastic.”

The AI-authored image, he says, it’s not so far removed from IRL high-fashion gimmicks, such as streetwear brand Supreme charging $30 for a branded brick in 2016. (Its resale value then was anywhere between $200 and $1,000 on eBay.) Plus, there’s an element to the image that’s “sweet and endearing,” Cohen said.

“We now have the ability to take a thought and have a machine create that thought,” Cohen said. “What’s really bad about that is not everyone’s thoughts are cute and neat.”

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There is a clear danger to this trend of slightly unrealistic but realistic-enough-to-be-believable images. Even with AI’s existing guardrails, people could create content that takes its audience to the “border of conspiracy theories,” Cohen said, or spreads visual “dog whistles.” (Coat Pope’s creator told BuzzFeed the image’s virality helped him realize the effect of AI-generated images — and supports laws regulating them.)

What Swaggy Pope Francis does highlight, in either circumstance, is the need for developing a kind of AI literacy. “This is a good doorway, a good entry point for it,” Cohen said.

In other words, it is possible — even likely — that AI images will fool us in devastating ways. They could fool us into questioning our beliefs, our faith in our leadership, our trust in one another. But if there’s anything meaningful to be taken away from the great mirage that was the Balenciaga Pope, it’s that, on occasion, AI will fool us just enough to delight us.