Newswatchers don’t have to wait for real images of Donald Trump in handcuffs—deepfakes are already flooding social media thanks to artificial intelligence technology that lets any hoaxer pose as a breaking news photographer.
Trump announced on Saturday morning that he expects to be arrested on Tuesday on charges related to a hush money payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels. It’s unclear whether Trump will be indicted, much less led to jail in cuffs. But AI programs like Midjourney have made it easy for Trump’s fans and foes alike to generate lifelike pictures of his perp walk.
“Unfortunately, these tools for creating realistic images are very useful for hoaxing the public,” Joan Donovan, a Harvard University researcher and author of the book Meme Wars told The Daily Beast. “We are witnessing a new form of ‘anticipatory disinformation,’ where rumors are made into reality through the creation of media covering events that never happened.”
“BREAKING,” one Twitter user wrote hours after Trump’s Saturday announcement. “FBI raids Mar A Lago to make Trump arrest. Exclusive photos.”
The pictures he uploaded were cinematic. Agents storming Trump’s Florida resort in riot gear, running beneath gold chandeliers with rifles drawn. Only some of the officers looked unusual on second glance. One had a curiously pixelated face, another with stumpy fingers like dog paws. The images were generated by AI, by a Twitter user who’s also shared computer-generated images of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez cosplaying and President Joe Biden participating in an occult ritual with goat horns.
He also shared one of several fake images of agents pulling Trump toward a waiting police van. Those images, and similar AI variations by other provocateurs, quickly spread from Twitter to sites like 4chan and YouTube, where “breaking news” channels used the picture as the thumbnail image on their videos. (“Where was Trump arrested?” one YouTube commenter complained. “Clickbait.”)
Some AI artists admitted that their pictures were dupes—eventually. “Holy shit they actually did it,” wrote one user who shared his own picture of a Trump perp walk, before sharing increasingly implausible AI images of Trump meditating in jail, wielding a sword, and standing atop the Capitol with a dragon.
“If this fooled you, you’re not ready for the Future,” he wrote of the first image. “Very soon, images like this will be ALL over Social Media... and they will be MUCH better.”
AI art and text generators have soared in popularity in recent months, with programs like Midjourney allowing users to create realistic images based on text prompts like “Trump getting arrested by the FBI.” And while those programs are far from perfect (many still struggle to draw human hands that don’t look like a Lovecraftian nightmare), they’re getting better. Last week, Midjourney unveiled its latest version, which can render surprisingly lifelike images, including of normal-looking hands.
Two days before Trump’s announcement, journalist Eliot Higgins tested the new Midjourney update by asking the program to generate pictures of politicians in dramatic scenarios: Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin holding Ukrainian peace talks, Putin in a prison jumpsuit, and Trump getting arrested. Higgins even made the Trump dupes look as if they were screenshots of a news broadcast by adding “news footage” to the Midjourney prompt.
Although Trump has not been arrested or charged, the fake images have proved popular on the right and left, with Trump opponents cheering the idea of the ex-president in prison, and Trump supporters rallying around their not-actually-arrested leader.
Other computer-generated fakes have previously put words in politicians’ mouths. A viral deepfake video of Biden purported to show the president announcing a draft of Americans to fight in Ukraine. No such draft exists.