Midjourney, an artificial intelligence (AI) service that generates images from natural language descriptions, has recently found itself in the midst of controversy. The company has banned users from creating pictures of Chinese President Xi Jinping, citing concerns about deepfakes. Deepfakes are manipulated digital representations produced by sophisticated machine-learning techniques that can be used to spread false information and propaganda.
While Midjourney’s ban was intended to prevent the proliferation of deepfakes on its platform, users have found a way to circumvent the ban by creating deepfakes of Xi using other methods. Midjourney has responded by disabling access to its free trial version. Although the platform still allows the creation of images featuring world leaders, the Chinese President is notably excluded. Any attempt to generate an image with his likeness or even mention his name in a prompt is strictly prohibited by Midjourney.
Critics, like Sarah McLaughlin, senior scholar at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), have argued that the ban constitutes a form of censorship, undermining the fundamental principles of free speech and expression. While Midjourney’s intentions may have been to prevent the spread of deepfakes, the ban has sparked debate about whether it is ever appropriate to limit access to technology in this way.
In messages exchanged on the chat service Discord last autumn, Midjourney’s founder and CEO, David Holz, revealed that the firm had received complaints from local users about “various topics in different countries,” prompting them to block numerous related words. However, according to chat logs examined by The Washington Post, Holz refrained from listing the prohibited terms to prevent unnecessary controversy. Holz also mentioned that the prohibited words were not solely connected to China. Nonetheless, he recognized that China was a particularly sensitive matter, as political humor might put Chinese users at risk.
In response to the criticism, Midjourney has attempted to explain its decision. In a statement, the company stated that its ban on Xi Jinping images was not motivated by financial gain. Instead, the company claims that it was “for the greater good” to ensure that access to this technology was available to Chinese individuals. However, critics argue that this reasoning is flawed, as it assumes that Chinese individuals are incapable of using the technology responsibly.
Despite the ban, users of Midjourney’s platform have found a workaround by creating deepfakes of Xi using other methods. Some users have used the /imagine function and provided the full URL of an existing photo of Xi in the prompt. Others have used the /blend function to combine two existing photos. While these methods are not as seamless as generating an image directly from a description, they still allow users to create images of Xi.
In conclusion, Midjourney’s ban on Xi Jinping images has sparked debate about the limits of technology and free speech. While the company may have had good intentions, its decision has been criticized as a form of censorship. As the debate continues, it remains to be seen whether Midjourney will reconsider its decision or if users will continue to find ways to create deepfakes of Xi.