Why You Should Beware a Flood of Fake Trump Mug Shots

5 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

Former President Donald Trump is expected to surrender to the Manhattan District Attorney’s office on Tuesday to face criminal charges. While most people in that situation have to pose for a mug shot, it is not clear if the former President will be made to do so. And if he does, it’s not known when or even if that historic image will be made public. The state of New York does not normally release mug shot photos.

So on Monday, barring a leak from someone on the inside, a few Trump supporters began discussing ways to create fake mug shots. In online pro-Trump groups, they spread false rumors that New York officials had removed all criminal mug shots from the Internet in order not to have to release the former President’s photo. “Let’s make our own version and circulate it!” one person posted on a popular pro-Trump forum. “No one will know what’s real!” Another person posted “If they don’t release the mug shot immediately, just stage a mug shot as to not hold up any billboards, t-shirts, posters, or fundraising drives.”

In recent years, doctored images of Trump in jail, handcuffs, or otherwise being held accountable for criminal charges were widely spread by left-wing critics. (This includes photoshopped TIME Magazine covers showing Trump in an orange prison jumpsuit that went viral during his presidency.) But the enthusiastic embrace of these images by his own supporters shows the extent to which they believe that any evidence of Trump’s prosecution only strengthens the narrative that this is a politicized “witch hunt.”

More from TIME

Read More: Live Updates on Trump’s Indictment

“Literally just give me a poster or a mug of his mug shot [photoshopped] over an American flag and I’ll buy your entire stock,” one person posted on a pro-Trump online forum. “I will be the first to put that mug shot on my new T-shirt and wear it around everywhere, while talking the gospel of MAGA & martyrdom!” another posted. “We will take whatever mug shot comes out and meme Trump back into the White House with it.”

Claire Wardle, a professor at Brown University’s School of Public Health who specializes on misinformation and user-generated content, says that there’s been a spike in people creating fake images in recent weeks due to advances in AI technology. Already, fake images depicting Trump’s arrest, French President Emmanuel Macron in the streets of Paris, and even the Pope wearing a Balenciaga puffer jacket, have gone viral online, fooling many internet users.

“These kinds of conversations show that the real danger isn’t always people being misled, it’s the fact that over time people are increasingly struggling to know what or who to trust,” she says. “As this [user] says explicitly ‘no one will know what’s real!’—that’s often the aim of those sowing disinformation.”

Read More: How to Spot an AI-Generated Image Like the ‘Balenciaga Pope’

Over the last couple months, publicly-accessible AI-image generation tools, such as Midjourney, have grown powerful enough to generate photorealistic imagery. While the image of the Pope did contain some telltale signs of fakery—such as blurry hands and drooping eyeglasses—it was convincing enough to fool many internet users, including the celebrity Chrissy Teigen. “I thought the Pope’s puffer jacket was real and didn’t give it a second thought,” she wrote. “No way am I surviving the future of technology.”

Although no convincing fake images of Trump’s mug shot have gone viral yet, Wardle says “it’s likely people will see fake and AI generated mug shots of Trump” in the coming days.

For Trump, the historic mug shot image could be used as fuel for campaign attacks ads and donor appeals to capture the collective sense of grievance among the MAGA faithful. Trump has already raised more than $5 million after news broke on Thursday that a Manhattan grand jury indicted him over charges related to hush money payments to a porn star ahead of the 2016 election.

Read More: How Trump Is Negotiating the Details of His Indictment to Maximize the Drama

And as Trump prepares for his day in court on Tuesday, he’s likely getting ready to choreograph the spectacle that would follow. “We’ll have a mug shot. For the record, it will be the most manly, most masculine, most handsome mug shot of all time,” joked Hogan Gidley, a former Trump White House spokesman who still speaks regularly with Trump. “I can say that definitely, before having even seen it.”

But there may be some hesitancy within Trump’s inner circle. One of Trump’s attorneys—Alina Habba—told CNN on Monday that “there’s no need” for the former President to even take one. “Mug shots are for people so that you recognize who they are. He is the most recognized face in the world, let alone the country right now, so there’s no need for that. There’s no need for the theatrics,” she said.

“I do have a problem with leaking of pictures,” Habba added. “I think that because we’re in a campaign, because he’s the leading GOP candidate, it’s not going to help anything.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Nik Popli at nik.popli@time.com and Vera Bergengruen at vera.bergengruen@time.com