Why the uncanny “All eyes on Rafah” image went so viral

Displaced Palestinians in Rafah in January.

If you’ve scrolled through Instagram Stories this week, you were likely met with a single image over and over: a desert camp in front of a dramatic mountain range, filled with endless rows of colorful tents and white ones in the middle spelling out the words “All eyes on Rafah.”

The image has now been shared on at least 40 million Instagram Stories, including those of Palestinian models Gigi and Bella Hadid, actors Priyanka Chopra and Nicola Coughlan, and artist Kehlani. It’s certainly not the only image to go viral that attempts to bring attention to the plight of Palestinians during Israel’s seven-month assault on Gaza following the October 7 Hamas attack, and not even the only one this week (another, which groups several headlines in which Israeli officials claim its deadly attacks were “mistakes,” has seen wide traction). But it’s unlike many of the other posts to circulate on social media during the war, in which Israeli forces have killed more than 35,000 people (more than half of whom the UN says are women and children) and displaced around 1.7 million more. That’s because it appears to be AI-generated. 

Judging by its uncanny smoothness and unlikely symmetries, combined with the fact that it depicts a large open desert with snow-capped mountains in the background and tents neatly lined up to spell out English words, it’s clear to everyone involved that it isn’t an actual depiction of the southern Gaza city of Rafah. Yet in the wake of another deadly airstrike, it’s the image that has become inescapable online. 

The picture appeared on Instagram shortly after an Israeli airstrike on May 26, which was carried out with US-made bombs and set fire to a camp of displaced Palestinians, killing at least 45 people in Rafah, which was meant to be the last “safe” zone in the region. The Biden administration has said the attacks weren’t enough to convince the US to withhold sending more aid to Israel. Its virality stemmed from the platform’s “Add Yours” feature, which allows people to include their own image in an existing chain of related ones. The graphic was created by @shahv4012, who seems to be a young Instagram user in Malaysia.

“All eyes on Rafah” became a slogan for pro-Palestinian activists in February, when World Health Organization director Rick Peeperkorn said the phrase while describing tensions there as locals prepared for a potential Israeli invasion. Humanitarian groups like Save the Children International, Oxfam, and Jewish Voice for Peace have since repurposed it, and many Instagram graphics touting the phrase have gone viral. 

Hussein Kesvani, a podcaster who studies digital anthropology, says the latest image snowballed so quickly in part because most images coming out of Gaza are of dead bodies or sobbing children and families, which many people are reticent to share on their personal Instagram Stories.

In the wake of another deadly airstrike, this is the image that has become inescapable online

“It’s a memetic moment where people have the idea that this is the right position to take and want to voice an opposition to it,” he explains. “It’s an act of bearing witness, saying, ‘This is horrible, I see dead kids on my phone all the time, and I would like this to stop.’” Rather than sharing what might be distressing or traumatic footage, people are drawn to an image that is striking in an aesthetic way rather than a journalistic one. 

Kesvani also points to decreasing trust in both social platforms and mainstream media, which many feel have suppressed pro-Palestinian voices and failed to accurately communicate the realities of the war. In response, social media users have used Instagram Stories — more private than public grid posts, less likely to be censored by algorithms that prioritize certain posts over others in the main Instagram timeline, and only available to view for 24 hours — to make their opinions known and share information they might not be able to find elsewhere during the duration of the conflict. 

It’s somewhat ironic, then, that the viral image was so clearly AI-generated — but this is also likely a cause of its success. While Instagram has been a crucial tool for journalists and activists covering the devastation in Gaza, its parent company Meta has been accused of censoring pro-Palestinian content on both Instagram and Facebook, even among its employees, though it has repeatedly denied doing so. A computer-generated image would have an easier time bypassing Instagram’s moderation policies, which remove posts that it considers violent and graphic. 

Activism on social media has been criticized for as long as social media has existed, most famously when white people began posting black squares on their Instagram feeds in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, ostensibly to drive awareness of police brutality against Black people. The squares were heavily blasted, however, for both flooding the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on Instagram at a time when Black people were using it to organize, and also for their performative nature while saying, quite literally, nothing. 

Many online have compared the AI Rafah image to the black squares, or else have asked that people include action items or real images of the actual destruction instead. “There’s no need for AI pictures when there’s real on-the-ground images of the horrors in Palestine (especially when Zionists try to push the narrative that the footage by Palestinians we see is fake),” wrote one person on X. The war between Israel and Hamas has deepened tensions online between those who have spoken out for Palestine, those who are pro-Israel, and those who have remained silent, leading to “blockouts” and “digital guillotines” in which users mass-block their ideological opponents. 

“Ultimately, we know that support for Israel is a structural position, and one that probably isn’t going to change with an Instagram post,” says Kesvani. “But it does sort of chip away at the narrative that Israel has tried to promote for a long time, which is that they are the only democratic nation in this region of people who are antithetical to Western ideals. I think there is some merit in your apolitical friends who have not talked about this until now sharing this image.”

Pro-Israel ads funded by its government have been everywhere on the internet since the attacks by Hamas on October 7. This week, pro-Israel AI-generated images have also circulated via Instagram Stories’ “Add Yours” feature that directly respond to the virality of the Rafah image, including one with at least 400,000 Instagram Story shares that reads “Where were your eyes on October 7?” and another with more than 100,000 shares of a march spelling out the phrase “Bring them home now,” a reference to the more than 100 hostages still held in Gaza by Hamas.

One assumes, or at least hopes, that most people sharing clearly AI-generated images like these know that what they’re posting isn’t a real photograph, but they’ve gone massively viral for one big reason: They simply look different from the millions of other images we see every day. The swaggy Pope Francis, Balenciaga Harry Potter, and Shrimp Jesus, Kesvani explains, are so compelling because they “can articulate the sorts of fears and fantasies and imaginings of people in ways that explanations and fact-checking are not going to be able to do.”

Regardless of how you feel about AI art, there are questions to ask when the stakes are greater than aesthetics: If an AI-generated image proves more effective at changing hearts and minds in a humanitarian crisis than an actual depiction of reality — or at least encourages more people to speak up about it, even in a small way — what does that say about the future of online activism? More importantly, how do we minimize the chance that AI-generated falsehoods or misleading images replace the crucial reporting and organizing necessary to effect real change? At the very least, it’s likely this won’t be the last AI protest image on your timeline. 

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