Why an AI image of Pope Francis in a fly jacket stirred up the internet

The uncanny AI forgery is an amusing example of a much deeper issue.
Midjourney fake image of Pope Francis wearing white puffer jacket
No, the Pope was not spotted sporting a fashionable white puffer jacket. Pablo Xavier/Midjourney

No, Pope Francis was not recently spotted walking through Vatican City wearing a stylish, arctic white puffer jacket—but you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Meanwhile, the man responsible for the AI-generated gag images is concerned, alongside numerous tech experts and industry observers.

The realistic, albeit absurdist, images of a fashionable pontifex went viral over the weekend via Twitter and other social media outlets, leading at least some to briefly wonder about their authenticity. By Monday, however, BuzzFeed writer Chris Stokel-Walker located the man behind the memes—Pablo Xavier, a 31-year-old construction worker living in the Chicago area who declined to offer his last name for fear of potential backlash.

Xavier explained the simple reason behind Friday afternoon’s Fashion Icon Francis: he was high on psychedelic mushrooms, and thought it would be funny to see what the generative AI art program, Midjourney, could do with prompts such as “‘The Pope in Balenciaga puffy coat, Moncler, walking the streets of Rome, Paris.’” Xavier’s Reddit account has since been suspended since uploading the Midjourney images, although justification for the reprimand remains unclear. In the meantime, multiple outlets and online culture critics have offered their own examinations and critiques of why, and how, a Balenciaga-adorned Pope briefly captured the attention of so many.

[Related: OpenAI’s newest ChatGPT update can still spread conspiracy theories.]

Part of the attention is undoubtedly owed to Midjourney’s latest software updates, which noticeably honed its photorealistic abilities. This is particularly evident when it comes to celebrities and public figures that make multiple appearances within its massive data training sets. But on a more esoteric level, there’s an uncanny valley-like notion that maybe the Pope would wear a simple, stylish overcoat. This is, after all, a religious position long known for its flair—so much so that the papal PR team had to debunk fashion myths in the past. A pure white down jacket is arguably in the realm of possibility,. at least, more so than a rave at the White House, Donald Trump arrested wearing Joker makeup, or the late Queen Elizabeth doing her laundry.

By now, there’s an entire series of “dripped out” Pope fakeries swirling around online, the majority of which are ridiculous enough to preclude them from fooling most people. That said, serious abuse of AI-generated art is already a very real and concerning issue. The rapid adoption of AI art generation technologies by Big Tech companies are leading many critics to urge regulators to clamp down on wanton advancements. Until then, however, the Puffer Jacket Pope is perhaps the least of everyone’s AI concerns.