By now you’ve seen it. Pope Francis goes over the frame, his focus is on the middle distance. It’s brightly lit like it’s early morning. A silver cross hangs around his neck, dangling over his snow-white Balenciaga-inspired down jacket. It’s the Baller bishop, the stiff father, his holy drip – and he was ordained from above.
If you were on social media at any point over the past weekend, you would have seen the image. And – if you were anything like me and seemingly millions of other people – you wouldn’t have realized right away that it was generated by AI.
This will likely go down in history as the first time the public has been fooled en masse by an AI-generated image. But this is only the beginning, a sign of the times to come.
The rise of the AI pope to prominence
The image first actually reached the public on Twitter, with this tweet in particular being widely shared:
— Leon (@skyferrori) March 25, 2023
The image itself was created by a Reddit user (interviewed here by Buzzfeed) and posted to the midjourney subreddit on Friday along with three other images created by the AI-powered image generator from the command prompt.
Then it went haywire in this peculiar online way; flowing memes, people sharing the image with comments like “The Pope hurls a whistle with a real fuccboi energy” – and of course individuals using Photoshop to the fullest extent of its powerful powers:
Do you wear the…
“Papal puffer parka? Yes. I am.” pic.twitter.com/59corwNlCe
— Nick (@nicktotin) March 25, 2023
It wasn’t until the rest of the weekend that many people who had seen or shared the fake image of the pope realized it was generated by AI. In a way, it’s not hard to see that there’s a computer behind the image.
I’ve marked a few areas where you can see telltale signs of an AI-generated image, from blurring and weird textures to hand creation issues.
The thing is, as you scroll through thousands of images and videos on social media, it’s easy to miss these little details. Let’s put it this way: if we had to sit down and analyze every single image that hits our feeds, we’d never get anywhere.
A mass hallucination
We’ve been getting closer and closer to a tipping point lately, much of it has been pushed past the launch of midjourney version five. In fact, we were close to the public and believed that an AI generated image with images of is real Trump is arrested. Luckily, the fact that they clearly looked fake — as well as the lack of any relevant news about the incident — meant the majority of people weren’t fooled at first sight.
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 that propelled us to reach this tipping point. As pointed out by journalist Ryan Broderick on Twitter, one possible explanation for why this image in particular is spreading like wildfire is that “aesthetically, the Pope exists in the same uncanny valley as most AI artwork”. That makes bizarreness an inherent part of its public character, meaning these AI-generated images can more easily pass our bullshit detectors.
I think it goes even further. Just think of the increasing surreality of the last few years. Imagine the photo of Trump in the White House, beaming in front of stacks of fast food, with a somber portrait of Abraham Lincoln behind him. Or those of the shaman of capital riotsa horned-hat, painted-face man frolicking at the heart of American politics.
Trump, who can’t even spell hamburgers, invited the Clemson Tigers to the White House and served them Wendy’s, McDonald’s and Burger King. 🍔
Now the Trump administration is trying to blame Democrats for their poor decision: https://t.co/3cV1XcbcHd pic.twitter.com/3tYQaIOeXu
— Complex (@Complex) January 15, 2019
What feels more likely in hindsight? The Pope in an elegant jacket or the President of the United States serving McDonald’s in a historic reception room? Difficult to say, because society itself has become more and more insecure, truth and normality more and more abstract.
Immerse yourself in hyperreality
The images of the Pope with a flawless IV are by and large harmless, the worst thing some people think the catholic church and the man who times signed a Lamborghini are materialistic or obsessed with money. But if we apply the same mass misconception beliefs to something like politics, things can go downhill fast.
AI-generated images would be bad enough in times of relative political dignity, but we are experiencing something some refer to as a post-truth era where many politicians and news outlets just, well, lie.
Not only is public trust in governments at historic lows, but this is made worse by an aging population in the western world. Many older people struggle to use their phones, let alone distinguish AI-generated images from real ones.
We’re going further into hyperreality in every way, a concept named by Jean Baudrillard. This is a concept where the real and the artificial merge and become indistinguishable from each other. It affects everything from Fashion To the aesthetics of AI images themselves.
Let’s be more specific. Midjourney v5 and online communities are already pumping out images that border on reality and create scenarios that didn’t exist. The historical quality of these photos 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—like 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 great analytical mind to consider what realistic images of, say, the moon landing is staged could have on the general population.
I’m really torn between thinking this is awesome and being scared. Terrible. awesome.
Hyperreality’s influence 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 explaining it wrong The UK will have an extra £350m available to fund the NHS after leaving the EU. Considering the dismal state of modern Britain, the food shortages and sky-high inflationit feels unreal, almost AI generated.
And what is stopping politicians from claiming exactly that? Surely no one could have been that wrong? It has to be AI. Forgery. A generated image peddled by those who cannot accept the unfettered glory of a UK finally free?
Expect conservative politicians to call this image rigged at some point in the future.
Think small to act big
Here we get to the heart of it: 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 would have been impossible to predict that an AI-generated image of the Pope would shake society, or this manipulated audio of it Biden and Trump have an amusing chat about games would tear through the internet.
Yes, the EU and UK have been active tries 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, just that more needs to be done around them.
Media studies – once derided as a “doss” subject – is now more important than ever. In this era of mainstream misinformation, the ability to analyze the flow of information is a vital skill. This must be extended.
In a world of AI generation, we need to teach people how these systems work, how to verify manipulated images, the value of sources and basic methods to find the best approximation of the truth there is. This type of AI-supported media education should not only be introduced in all schools across Europe, but offered to all age groups.
Another avenue that I believe is critical in this coming age of hyperreality is local action. As humans, we are designed to operate in small groups. That’s one of the reasons the news cycle is so scary; We’re just not made to take on the world’s problems.
As AI spreads, it becomes more difficult to get an accurate picture of the world. But what we can understand is what surrounds us directly.
Political divisions can quickly disappear when a hole in the road needs repairing or a school needs to raise funds. In these situations, you are dealing with living, breathing people who are attached to a community rather than a faceless online crowd. In a world of hyperreality, holding on to aspects we know to be true can help break through the bullshit.
As the saying goes: think globally, act locally. If – alongside AI education and legislation – we aim to solve local problems with global ones in mind, the rise of this type of technology can take place without turning society into a kind of mush. Hell, maybe AI generators of all kinds could be used for fun and harmless activities.
But if we allow this technology to pull us into full hyperreality without taking proper precautions, who knows what could happen – but I don’t have high hopes it will be good.
And all because someone put the Pope in a dripping jacket.
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