One of the four Midjourney-generated images of Pope Francis in a white puffer jacket from u/trippy_art_special’s post on the Midjourney subreddit (via Reddit)

An AI-generated image series depicting Pope Francis in a white puffer jacket went viral on social media over the weekend, spawning a myriad of nicknames including Dope Francis, Pope Smoke, and Pontiflex. The image set was originally posted to the r/midjourney subreddit but gained traction when an unrelated Twitter user posted one of the images without context, effectively tricking enough people into thinking that the Pope was strolling through the Vatican looking like the Michelin Man in real time. While the majority of social media users are amused by their bamboozlement, many are concerned about the authenticity of both journalism and viral content as “fake news” continues to proliferate.

A Reddit user who goes by trippy_art_special shared their Midjourney creations in a r/midjourney post titled “The Pope Drip” just as the weekend kicked off. The account has since been suspended and the post’s comments section has been locked. (A spokesperson for Reddit confirmed to Hyperallergic that the account’s suspension was unrelated to the “Pope Drip” post.)

Mexico-based content creator Leonardo Alpuche (@skyferrori) tweeted the first image of the Pope in the jacket as a joke. He told Hyperallergic he found it funny and noticed that no one had shared it on the platform yet. The image’s textures and shadows are convincingly photographic, but a closer look at the picture reveals elements of AI generation such as the unidentifiable object in the Pope’s hand, the rudimentary rendering of the crucifix pendant on his chain, and the warped lenses of his glasses.

Such minute irregularities are easily overlooked when the “photo” is viewed in passing on a mobile device, allowing hundreds of thousands of social media users to believe what they’re seeing at face value.

“At first it was crazy,” Alpuche said. “Everyone was believing that it was an actual image of the Pope wearing trendy clothes. Some people even compared him to Rihanna at the Super Bowl, and other people started doing their own memes. Nobody seemed to notice that it was actually AI which I find very hilarious because these days you can pretty much use an Al to fabricate different scenarios.”

Midjourney and other AI image generators continue to fine-tune their outputs for more realistic results, blurring the line between real and false in the era of digital immediacy and shortened attention spans. Last week, Midjourney-generated images of former president Donald Trump being arrested made their rounds on the web, although they were significantly less realistic than those of Dope Francis. In late February, an Instagram “photographer” was widely criticized for revealing that his photographs were actually developed using AI as well, leaving his followers feeling tricked and cheated. Amidst the hilarity of this seemingly innocuous deception is the inability to trust “photographic” evidence, raising concerns about media reliability.

“I believe that we’re at a point in social media and technology where is easy to believe what we see online without asking further questions about its authenticity, and in some scenarios AI-fabricated images could be dangerous,” Leonardo told Hyperallergic, reflecting on the meme’s greater impact. “I think in the future, apps should label their user’s Al content just to keep everything safe.” (Twitter has since labeled the image in Alpuche’s tweet as AI-generated.)

Rhea Nayyar (she/her) is a New York-based teaching artist who is passionate about elevating minority perspectives within the academic and editorial spheres of the art world. Rhea received her BFA in Visual...

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *