Pope Francis’ AI-Generated Wardrobe Scandal: Blurring the Lines Between Reality and Fiction
Above all, social media users exclaimed that they could not believe the image was real. And it wasn't. Twitter has since added a contextual footnote to several top-performing tweets clarifying that the image was generated by...
Over the weekend, a peculiar image of Pope Francis made waves on the internet. The picture, widely circulated on social media, shows the 86-year-old pontiff wearing a thick, long white coat cinched at the waist, seemingly layered over winter street clothes. The attire appeared to be a drastic departure from the typical garments worn at the papal household, such as robes, stoles, and tall, pointed headpieces called miters.
Above all, social media users exclaimed that they could not believe the image was real. And it wasn’t. Twitter has since added a contextual footnote to several top-performing tweets clarifying that the image was generated by artificial intelligence (AI) using the Midjourney software tool. A 31-year-old construction worker from Chicago claimed authorship of the viral image.
AI-powered image creation tools are becoming increasingly sophisticated. The technology, which generates images from user-supplied text, has been used to design inclusive fashion shows, create complete graphic novels, and even help envision new forms of architecture. But as AI advances and computer-generated “deep fake” images become more convincing, many are concerned about the ethical implications, including the removal of agency from subjects (placing individuals in fabricated scenarios that may be defamatory or malicious, for example), and whether machine learning technology will one day make fake news indiscernible.
Last week, AI-generated photos of Donald Trump being arrested spread like wildfire after the former president wrote on social media that he expected to be indicted in connection with a campaign finance investigation in New York. (Trump, who maintains his innocence, has not yet been charged with any crime).
If dressing is an important form of self-expression, then an AI-generated outfit could not only diminish the power and messages inherent in clothing but also an individual’s autonomy. In the papacy, each garment has religious significance.
The color of the Pope’s vestments is specially selected to match specific celebrations: red can only be worn on certain occasions, such as Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Pentecost, as it represents the blood of Jesus Christ, while pink may only be used twice a year.
Therefore, fake images of the Pope wearing specific garments outside of these contexts, or in countless others, could cause offense, alarm, or even mistrust within the Catholic community.
Digitally altering someone’s clothing could also have lasting damage to their reputation. A doctored 2005 photo of Paris Hilton in a nightclub wearing a provocative sleeveless shirt reading “Stop Being Poor” became one of the most recognizable images of early 2000s pop culture. It heightened the public perception of Hilton as an out-of-touch heiress. She publicly addressed the fake image in 2021, insisting that people should not “believe everything you read.” (The vest, which belonged to a fashion collection designed by Hilton’s sister, Nicky, actually read “Stop Being Desperate”).
During a conference at the Vatican on Monday, Pope Francis addressed the rise of AI technology and urged scientists to consider its human impact (though he did not specifically refer to the furor over his own falsified appearance). “I am convinced that the development of artificial intelligence and machine learning has the potential to contribute positively to the future of humanity,” said Francis, before adding: “I am confident that this potential will only be realized if there is a constant and coherent commitment on the part of those developing these technologies to act ethically and responsibly.”
“Therefore, I encourage you, in your deliberations, to make the intrinsic dignity of every man and woman the key criterion for evaluating emerging technologies,” Francis said.