Photos of Pope Francis wearing a white puffer from the disgraced fashion brand Balenciaga fooled millions of viewers over the weekend.
In the artificial images, Francis is shown sporting an unconventional papal outfit: a long, white Balenciaga puffer jacket. Most viewers took the photos at face value and applauded the pope for his fashion-forward outfit, not realizing that the photos were actually deepfakes.
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“The boys in Brooklyn could only hope for this level of drip,” the photo which now has over 20 million views was captioned on Twitter.
Twitter flagged the photo with a warning label below the tweet that notified users the images were generated by AI and therefore were not real. The image was created on the AI image-generating app Midjourney, according to the warning.
Other photos of the Pope surfaced later, which showed him wearing white gloves, white sneakers, sunglasses, a leather jacket and a thick gold cross chain.
Balenciaga sparked outrage in November over their ad campaign that showed toddlers with teddy bears in bondage-style clothing, which was widely criticized as “depraved.” The fashion house also used an image of a Supreme Court opinion about a case criminalizing the pandering of child pornography as a prop in another photo shoot.
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The alleged AI artist has been identified as 31-year-old Chicago-area construction worker Pablo Xavier who told Buzzfeed News Monday that he was “tripping on shrooms” when he started messing around with Midjourney to create the fake images.
“I’m trying to figure out ways to make something funny because that’s what I usually try to do,” Pablo Xavier told BuzzFeed News. “I try to do funny stuff or trippy art — psychedelic stuff. It just dawned on me: I should do the Pope. Then it was just coming like water: ‘The Pope in Balenciaga puffy coat, Moncler, walking the streets of Rome, Paris,’ stuff like that.”
He said he first shared what he described as “perfect” pictures in the AI Art Universe Facebook Group and then on Reddit with the images finally reaching peak exposure on Twitter.
Pablo Xavier said he grew up in a Catholic family and while he doesn’t feel part of the religion today, he has “no ill will toward” Pope Francis.
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“I just thought it was funny to see the Pope in a funny jacket,” he said. “I figured I was going to get backlash, I just didn’t think it was going to be to this magnitude.” He described it as “definitely scary” that “people are running with it and thought it was real without questioning it.”
“I feel like shit,” he said of the images being co-opted by people to criticize the Catholic Church. “It’s crazy.”
Deepfake images and artificially created content has made headlines recently with many warning about the dangers of using someone’s name and likeness to create a false reality.
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