The Pope Coat Was Helpful, Actually

We need more innocuous lessons in how to recognize AI images

Colin Horgan
3 min readApr 3


The image created by Midjourney, an AI program

To judge by the general reaction to it, the Pope Coat — the AI-generated image of the Pope Francis wearing a huge designer white puffer coat that went viral last week — was yet another sign of the looming information apocalypse. “The images fooled scores of users, in one of the first instances of wide-scale misinformation stemming from artificial intelligence,” NBC News reported. “I think Balenciaga pope might be the first real mass-level AI misinformation case,” Ryan Broderick, who writes the Garbage Day newsletter on internet culture, tweeted. He expanded on the point: “There’s probably a lot more coming and there’s not a ton we can do about it!” Broderick wrote in his newsletter, adding that attempts at regulation would be too slow.

Yes, the fake photo (generated by Midjourney) fooled a lot of people. And yes, there will be more to come. But as AI-generated photos (and audio and video) proliferate, growing sharper alongside it — slower, but increasing nonetheless — will be our collective radar to suss-out computer-generated media. Along with the myriad stories noting that the Pope Coat was fake were nearly as many pieces explaining why. They pointed out the subtle, but noticeable, problems with the image. The Pope’s eyelid appeared to be attached to his glasses. His fist clutched thin air, rather than the coffee cup he was meant to be carrying. And the crucifix around his neck was mangled, and seemingly hanging from just one chain.

It’s weird that we have to do this kind of work — that we have to deploy verification methods on everything we see online — but it’s necessary. And, strangely enough, viral images like the Pope Coat are good, because not only are they a chance to let everyone test their AI-detecting skills, but they’re examples that are more or less completely harmless. It’s not a problem that the Pope was pictured wearing a ridiculous outfit. It’s not something that starts wars — or even arguments (other than those, perhaps, about his choice of style). It gives everyone a chance to see what AI can do in a safe-ish space.

Viral images like the Pope Coat are good, because they’re a chance to let everyone test their…