An image of Pope Francis wearing a large white puffer jacket took Twitter by storm, with social media users praising his new style. But the image is not authentic, displaying classic signs of AI manipulation, and Vatican experts told AFP the coat in the picture does not conform with papal wear.
“The boys in Brooklyn could only hope for this level of drip,” a March 25, 2023 tweet says, sharing a picture of what appears to be Pope Francis in the winter coat.
The image of the Pope — reportedly inspired by brands like Balenciaga — captured the attention of tens of thousands of Twitter accounts, and was also found on Reddit and Facebook — with many believing it to be real.
But Edmondo Lilli, a spokesman for the Vatican photographic service, confirmed to AFP that the image is fake.
Lili said by email on March 28 that the Pope’s formal wardrobe consists of “a white cassock with a mozzetta and sash, also white. The headgear, called the zucchetto, is also white. Above the robe, the Pope wears the pectoral cross.”
The coat image is another result of artificial intelligence manipulation.
Recently developed AI tools such as Midjourney, DALL-E, Craiyon or Stable Diffusion can generate an infinite number of images by drawing on massive databases. As a result, artificial creations depicting real public figures have become increasingly popular and increasingly believable online in recent weeks.
A reverse image search found no match to the picture from reliable sources. AFP did, however, find similar imagery on artificial intelligence program MidJourney, and variations with the Pope wearing Adidas slacks or rainbow boots.
Distorted, blurred details in the viral image also indicate this is not a real photo, according to experts.
“Hypersmooth” skin and objects with odd features can all be signs of AI manipulation, said Del Walker, a senior character artist for the video game developer Naughty Dog. But these “can be improved in future AI updates or easily edited in image editing software,” he added.
The big white puffer coat is “definitely not” papal wear, said Massimo Faggioli, a professor of historical theology at Villanova University in Pennsylvania and expert in the papacy.
Religion News Service contributor, Thomas Reese, said that the Pope is generally only photographed in his white cassock, “I don’t think Francis would care all that much, but his staff would.”
Reese, however, noted that Pope John Paul II was once photographed in ski attire.
Renee DiResta of the Stanford Internet Observatory told AFP: “We’re at an interesting technological tipping point where realistic AI-generated images of anything — including people — are increasingly easy for just about anyone to create.”
She said online media literacy will be needed to help the public remember “they should be appropriately skeptical of sensational images shared by accounts they don’t know.”
AFP has previously debunked other AI-generated images.