Why the ‘All Eyes on Rafah' is Going Viral on Social Media

Credit - Photo-illustration by TIME; @InsiderWorld_1/X (1); Getty Images (1);

Nearly 45 million Instagram users—including celebrities like Bella Hadid and Nicola Coughlan—have shared an AI-generated image depicting tent camps for displaced Palestinians and a slogan that reads “all eyes on Rafah,” according to a Wednesday afternoon count by Instagram.

The sharing of the post comes amid criticism from the international community regarding Rafah, which rests on the southern Gaza Strip near the Egyptian border, and has been the subject of intense bombing by Israeli troops. Military strikes set shelters on fire, causing Palestinians to dig through charred remains hoping to rescue survivors. At least 45 Palestinians have been killed thus far. Rafah was previously deemed a humanitarian zone for civilians.

Sarah Jackson, an associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, tells TIME that the origins of internet activism date back to the ‘90s, when leaders behind the Zapatista uprising circulated information about what was happening on the ground. But currently, Instagram appeals to activists as a platform for social change because of the visual aspect of the app, allowing users to share both videos and photos.

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“One of the really important things that we have to acknowledge is that a lot of Palestinian journalists have been using Instagram to share from the ground what has been happening. We know that a lot of those journalists have been directly targeted and censored because of that, but this has been a platform that has been popular with them,” Jackson says.

Jackson points out that many social media activists may have been struggling to share images from Gaza due to algorithmic guidelines that hide graphic content. Instagram says that while it understands why people share this sort of content in certain instances, it encourages people to caption the photo with warnings about graphic violence, per its community guidelines.

Read More: Israel Continues Rafah Strikes Days After 45 Civilians Killed in Bombing

Users may have found a workaround by sharing an AI image. “Many of the images that are coming from the ground are really graphic and gruesome,” she says. “It has been harder and harder for people to actually document what's happening…and when compelling images are documented, they are often censored at the platform level…it makes sense that folks would turn to AI.”

Instagram user @ shahv4012 first shared the “all eyes on Rafah” post on their story. Some have criticized the use of AI for the photo. “There are people who are not satisfied with the picture and template, I apologize if I have made a mistake on all of you,” the user said in an Instagram story. “Whatever [you do], don’t look down on the Rafah issue now, spread it so that they are shaken and afraid of the spread of all of us.”

The slogan on the image likely was inspired by Richard Peeperkorn, the WHO representative for Gaza, who previously said that “all eyes” were on what is happening in Rafah.

While some have pointed out that sharing the AI image does not necessarily mean a user is fully educated on what is happening in Rafah, Jackson says that if the point is to spread awareness, and share that someone is “part of a collective that cares about this issue,” then posting the photo on their story is worthwhile.

Israel’s decision to launch its military offensive into Rafah came two days after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Israel to stop its planned assault on Rafah, and has been largely criticized by world leaders.

French President Emmanuel Macron said that he was “outraged” by the Israeli strikes in Rafah. “These operations must stop. There are no safe areas in Rafah for Palestinian civilians. I call for full respect for international law and an immediate ceasefire,” Macron shared on X on Monday. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres reiterated his call for an immediate ceasefire, and for the ICJ order to be complied with.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the deaths “tragic.” More than 36,000 Palestinians and some 1,500 Israelis have been killed since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, 2023.

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