How to spot deepfakes: Fake pope puffer jacket photo goes viral

A viral photo of Pope Francis in a stylish Balenciaga down jacket and jeweled crucifix is ​​doing the rounds on social media, racking up millions of views on Twitter, Reddit and more.

There’s just one problem – the Pope never posed for the picture. The image, which at first glance looks like a photo, was actually generated by an artificial intelligence program called Midjourney.

The image was originally posted on Reddit last Friday in the r/midjourney subreddit. A day later, the picture had already been reposted on multiple social media platforms, fooling thousands on Twitter.

“I thought the Pope’s down jacket was real and didn’t think twice about it,” model and TV personality Chrissy Teigen said on Twitter. “There’s no way I’m going to survive the future of technology.”

Who Deepfaked Balenciaga’s Pope?

The original creator, a Reddit user who went from u/trippy_art_special, has since been banned from the site. Buzzfeed News identified the perpetrator as Chicago resident Pablo Xavier, a 31-year-old construction worker. He declined to give his last name for fear of being attacked for creating the images.

“I was just blown away,” Pablo Xavier told Buzzfeed News after the images went viral. “I didn’t want it to explode like that.”

Although he held no grudges towards the pope — “I just thought it was funny to see the pope in a weird jacket” — Pablo Xavier said he saw the image used to criticize the church for lavish spending.

It’s “definitely scary,” he said. “People run around with it thinking it was real without questioning it.”

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The pope images are just the latest in a series of compelling “deepfakes,” synthetic media that uses AI and deep learning to fabricate fake images or videos of people who never existed. Days earlier, another controversial AI image went megaviral, this time of the arrest of former US President Donald Trump.

Although convincing, the technology is not yet perfect. Here are some tips on how to distinguish actual AI images from real photos.

How to recognize AI images

While convincing from a distance, current AI images tend to fall apart when you pay attention to the details – particularly the eyes, hands, and clothing. This often results in misshapen facial features, eyes looking in different directions, mismatched or missing earrings, and accessories that tend to blend with skin or clothing.

Take this papal photo, for example. Zoom in on the eyes and you might notice something about his glasses – the shadow of the frame is distorted and the right lens appears to both blend into his cheek and poke through his eyelid.

Now consider his right hand grasping the air above a floating, distorted coffee cup. In recent months, the AI ​​has struggled to render hands, often drawing them as a multi-fingered mess. The latest version of Midjourney fixed the problem but still struggles to show how fingers interact with the environment.

This is partly because the image generator mixes themes together without understanding exactly how they fit together – having no clue about physics or gravity, it explains the levitating cup and intangible jars.

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Observant observers may also have noticed that the Pope’s crucifix is ​​missing half of its chain, that the folds of clothing around his collar appear to be twisting into each other. The crucifix itself is asymmetrical and crooked.

While not applicable here, one of the biggest giveaways is to search for text in the image. As it is now, AI image generators can’t seem to replicate writing. Any text would instead appear as an illegible scribble.

Finally, take a look at the title and comment section of the post. What are people saying? You can also use reverse image search to find where the image was otherwise used; This could alert you to articles or experts that challenge the image.

But these tips could soon be outdated. AI technology is evolving at a breakneck pace and will improve all of these pitfalls. Researchers are working on detection systems, but it seems many of those currently available are only sometimes accurate.

As deepfakes become more convincing over time, one thing has become clear: seeing is no longer believing.


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