In the 1994 film “Forrest Gump,” the titular character, played by Tom Hanks, had a knack for being present at important moments in history. For example, he teaches dance moves to a young Elvis Presley, meets President John F. Kennedy with the University of Alabama football team, is interviewed on The Dick Cavett Show next to John Lennon, meets President Richard Nixon and reports the Watergate burglars to the police.
Former President Donald Trump, in this way, is getting Forrest Gumped.
Thanks to the ease with which people can use artificial intelligence to manipulate images, Trump is appearing on social media in a variety of settings in which he hasn’t appeared in real life, with artful airbrushing that renders him decades younger than he is.
The most recent images are being created by Brigitte Gabriel, a Trump supporter who is sprinkling her Twitter timeline with images showing the former president in military settings, standing with a lion, and in other powerful poses. There are also images of a tuxedo-clad Trump playing a grand piano, and holding a cross, his head backlit by what appear to be heavenly rays of light. He’s also been depicted as a founding father.
Gabriel, who has nearly 877,000 followers and has called Trump “the most masculine person to ever occupy the White House,” is not the first, of course, to depict the 45th president in such a positive, albeit fictionalized, light.
Painters Andy Thomas and Jon McNaughton have “Gumped” Trump, too, putting him in extraordinary company — sharing laughs and drinks with former Republican presidents (including Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln), carved into Mount Rushmore, and playing the drum in a revision of the famous “Spirit of 1776” painting.
In some ways, the images are evocative of actual photographs of Vladimir Putin, shown shirtless while sunbathing, fishing, swimming and horseback riding. Photographs have also been released of Putin doing judo, riding a snowmobile and hunting a whale.
Similarly, North Korea periodically releases photos of Kim Yong Un riding a white horse. Ronald Reagan was a skilled horseman who once rode with Queen Elizabeth. Photographs that show physical competency are an innocent way of boosting a leader’s image, if they are real and don’t devolve into widespread mockery as some of Putin’s images have.
But what are we to make of the AI images of Trump? Are they ethically problematic or simply fun?
Peter Loge, founding director of the Project on Ethics in Political Communication at The George Washington University, said the ennobling Trump photos “appear to be a mix of hyperbole and deception.”
He noted that the American Association of Political Consultants compares these sorts of images, called deepfakes, to “false and misleading statements.” The PR Council similarly recently wrote, ”Do not use generative AI to create or spread deepfakes, nor misinformation or disinformation.”
If there is an “intent to deceive” in an ad, Loge said in an email, the ad is out of bounds.
But these images aren’t being used in an ad or by a campaign. No one believes Trump played the drum in 1776, and it’s been widely publicized that he did not serve in the military.
Still, no, Loge said. “The pictures are deceptive, or at least deceptive enough to raise questions. If something is borderline ethical, if you have to explain why something is technically OK, then maybe try to find another approach. If you have to explain a joke, the joke probably isn’t funny. If you have to explain why something isn’t unethical, you should probably do something else.”
Of course, the people who generated the fake mug shots of Trump before his indictment — and the deepfake images of Trump trying to evade arrest — are doing something worse. While the technology may be the same, using AI to create and disseminate harmful images of someone — whether in deepfake pornography or politics — is not the same as creating images that glamorize someone and posting them on Twitter.
Of all the threats posed by AI, surely Donald Trump, accomplished pianist, isn’t the most concerning.
The military portrayals, however, gave even some staunch Trump supporters pause. Some said the images amount to “stolen valor” even though it wasn’t Trump himself doing the stealing.
Others said that it doesn’t speak well of Trump that his supporters think they need fake photos to make his case.
The fact is, unless we have a personal audience with a politician or the pope, we don’t have the full picture of what they really look like, how well they speak or navigate stairs. Aides and handlers, makeup artists and hair stylists are all paid to put the best face on public figures (and their spouses), and sometimes it’s a matter of guesswork as to what the public will like — or believe. (Who knew that a deepfake of Pope Francis wearing a puffy white Balenciaga coat would enchant the world?)
Writing for The New York Times about AI, Ezra Klein said, “We can plan for what we can predict ... What’s coming will be weirder.”
By that, Klein meant weirdness as a startling deviation from norms, not the weirdness of cowboy Trump, or Putin riding a bear, or the RNC putting out an AI-generated video in response to Joe Biden’s re-election announcement. These sorts of things, at this stage, are simply fantastical, maybe not yet dangerous, but also not necessarily benign. They are like growths the doctor says we should keep an eye on. They might be fine. They might not.
Seeing is no longer believing, that much is clear.