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Puffer coat pope is fake, but the AI art’s impact is real

We all wanted to believe that swagged out pope was real

AI art of the pope wearing a puffer coat Image: trippy_art_special/Midjourney via Reddit
Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

Pope Francis, but make it fashion. A person playing around with Midjourney, the AI art program, went viral over the weekend for creating an image of the pope wearing a coat that could have been pulled off a Balenciaga runway. The image went viral, not because it was so unrealistically absurd, but because it was believable. The pope does have drip, but just not exactly like this.

The Balenciaga pope went so massively viral in a way the internet hasn’t seen before with AI art, internet culture expert Ryan Broderick pointed out. The image looks to have been posted Friday on the Midjourney subreddit alongside three other versions of the image; the one that ended up going viral is the most convincing, maybe due to the lighting or background. Whatever it was, it worked: Lots of people thought it was real. I thought it was real before I started searching around on Google for other photos from whatever this outing was. Chrissy Teigen thought it was real, and so did plenty others.

When you look closely, you can start to see the details that confirm it’s a fake: a weird shadow around the glasses, a strange grasp on whatever the pope is holding, a shimmering blur. But when you’re scrolling on Twitter you don’t see those details up close; you chuckle at the image, admiring the pope’s fit, and then keep scrolling. It’s especially convincing when you see the fake image alongside real — and uncanny — photos of the pope.

Which brings us back to the believability of the pope wearing a Balenciaga coat. This is the same guy who meets with people in front of a massive sculpture that looks straight out of Diablo 4. The same pope who was gifted a a papal Lamborghini that ended up selling for $1.2 million at a charity auction. (Honestly, in doing research for this story, I thought the Lamborghini photo might be faked, too — it’s not.) His Holiness is the first pope to tweet. Heck, Esquire put Pope Benedict on its best-dressed list in 2007, and the Vatican put out a statement in response: “The pope, in summary, does not wear Prada, but Christ,” it said. Pope Francis made Esquire’s best-dressed list in 2013.

The puffy pope photo was likely the first time a mass number of people have been fooled by AI art, and as programs like Midjourney continue to improve, it certainly won’t be the last. As The Verge put it, the pope and his sick puffer coat going to incredibly viral is “both scary and reassuring, because it suggests there is currently a limit to what AI fakes are believable but scary because this technology is moving too fast for any current reassurances to hold true for long.”

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