June 12, 2024

After an Israeli airstrike on a displaced persons camp in Rafah in southern Gaza killed at least 45 people on Sunday, a post calling for “All Eyes on Rafah” went viral on Instagram Stories. However, the image doesn’t actually show Rafah — and it appears to have been generated by artificial intelligence.

The graphic depicts rows of tents stretching back into snowy mountains. The words “All Eyes on Rafah” are spelled out with white tents in the center of the image. As of Thursday afternoon, the image, which hasn’t been marked as AI-generated by Instagram, had been shared over 47 million times through an Instagram feature called “Add Yours,” which allows users to add the story to their own profile. Instagram user @shahv4012 is credited as the first account to share the graphic.

Despite the tens of millions of shares, some social media users criticized the virality of the fake image, which provided little context, and compared its reach to real images and infographics about the war in Gaza. Heben Nigatu, a writer and producer, shared the graphic on X and wrote: “I’m genuinely trying to understand why this random ass AI image from a random ass account is the post about Gaza that has gained the most traction? I don’t get it, it’s not even a particularly compelling image, AI-wise. Like, what am I looking at?”

Nigatu added that it was “very surprising” that the post, which only refers to Rafah, and not to Gaza or Palestine, is garnering so much attention when the city “does not have the immediate name recognition for people who haven’t been paying attention.” However, she noted, because the words are in the image and not typed out, the post could be dodging keyword censoring, allowing it to spread further.

Meta, Instagram’s owner, did not immediately respond to Quartz’s request for comment on the viral image.

Matt Navarra, a social media consultant, told the Washington Post the image is likely going viral because it’s a less-graphic way for people to show awareness, even if it’s a low-level contribution.

“It doesn’t depict real-world violence,” Navarra told the Post. “Although it feels sanitized, that is what has enabled it to have the level of viral reach that is has received so far.”

Hussein Kesvani, a journalist studying digital anthropology in London, shared a similar explanation with Vox.

“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 told Vox. “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.’”

The phrase “All Eyes on Rafah” pre-dated Sunday night’s airstrikes which were carried out after the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to stop its offensive on Rafah. The city was declared the last “safe” zone in Gaza in February amid Israel’s ground offensive into the region, and the phrase took off then. It likely came from the World Health Organization’s head for Gaza and the Israel-occupied West Bank, Rik Pepperkorn, who said at the time, “All eyes are on Rafah.”

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