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What the viral “All Eyes on Rafah” meme means for the conflict

Some have lamented that a bloodless AI-generated image has captured more people’s attention than real footage of the war. But it still has its own power.

By Sarah Manavis

In the last two days you have likely come across an image from a refugee camp, supposedly in the south of Gaza but plainly AI-generated, with tents spelling out the words “All Eyes on Rafah”. You have likely seen it because it’s all over social media. At the time of writing, it had been shared more than 46 million times on Instagram. Some have suggested it is the most-viewed AI image ever created.

The graphic went viral after an Israeli strike on Sunday night killed at least 45 civilians in Rafah, seemingly in an area that had formerly been declared a “safe zone” by Israel. Many of the casualties were burned alive. Images of headless children and bodies incinerated in the Gazan camp have been reported. Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the strike was a “tragic mistake”.

This is far from the only such incident in the conflict: the latest figures say 1,478 Israelis and, according to the Hamas-run health ministry, 35,562 Palestinians, many of them civilians, have been killed since 7 October 2023, in gruesome circumstances. But this meme perhaps marks the first time Israel’s attacks on civilian camps are being noticed by the wider public. Despite its message – “All Eyes on Rafah” – this bloodless, AI-generated image doesn’t actually depict Rafah at all. That makes it more palatable and shareable content, which may contribute to its virality.

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Many popular figures – from influencers to reality stars to A-list celebrities – shared the image or spoke out about the conflict, having remained silent for the previous seven months. Katy Perry shared a statement from Unicef condemning the strike in Rafah and calling for an immediate ceasefire; even the generally apolitical influencer Molly-Mae Hague shared a fundraiser for Gazans and encouraged her followers to donate. These are only a couple of examples of hundreds. It appears that – after eight months – we may have reached a turning point in how the conflict is understood in the West. Cultural figures with major audiences and influence, who have otherwise not commented on the atrocities in Gaza, are beginning to encourage others to engage with what is happening.

Despite this breakthrough, some leftist campaigners have responded to the popularity of the “All Eyes on Rafah” image with ire, dismissing it as surface-level attention. It has been criticised as performative, and lamented about how an AI-generated image has captured people’s attention over the more distressing and shocking images from the war. Others have considered it depressing that some social media users who have not been following the conflict have responded to the image by asking “who is Rafah?”.

This response is not surprising. Since 2020, many campaigners have become rightfully sceptical of the inconsistent power of digital activism, which can lead to urgent causes being diluted into mere trends. This phenomenon occurred during the peak of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, in which sharing an Instagram infographic and thoughtlessly donating to random organisations became equated with “doing the work”. (The infamous #blackout saw millions of people post a black square on social media with no context as to why.) Knee-jerk criticism of the “All Eyes on Rafah” post is to be expected. Sharing a graphic is undoubtedly a shallow form of action, especially compared with the work of dedicated activists who have spent several months organising fundraisers, attending protests and even putting their livelihoods at risk to speak out about Gaza.

But that response misunderstands what limited tools people in the West have to help those in Gaza. In a situation in which we are relatively powerless, our greatest lever is to shift public opinion enough to make our politicians take action. Pro-Palestinian and anti-war activists aim to encourage leaders to pressure Israel into calling a ceasefire by stopping arms sales and aid, perhaps even imposing sanctions.

Unlike movements such as BLM – which had extremely important but much broader aims, such as ending police violence and improving racial tensions in the US – the results of a viral social post are clear. Encouraging friends who have not paid attention to email their MP insisting they demand a ceasefire is precisely the momentum that is needed – especially so during a general election campaign, when our political demands have more impact. Even critiquing the AI-generated nature of the image misses the bigger issue: this year, Instagram introduced new censors to limit the spread of political content on the app. Users are opted into these by default, meaning posts and stories relating to Israel and Palestine are not seen by most users. As the tech journalist Ryan Broderick pointed out, the vagueness of the “All Eyes on Rafah” image is precisely why it was able to spread – those censors would have filtered out a more graphic or explicitly pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian photograph. It has, therefore, spread more widely than another image could, giving it a greater opportunity to influence people to read more, to have their mind changed, to do something.

This lack of pragmatic thinking is indicative of a wider problem on the left: its aims can easily get lost in myopic battles about what type of activism is best. It may be true to say that it’s a privilege, or a form of apathy, to choose to avoid seeing mangled bodies and dead children. It is true that sharing a social media post is the bare minimum that anyone can do to put pressure on political leaders. But the desire to chastise this social movement is counter-productive. Dogmatic rules and narrow conversations about what type of activism is the most worthy won’t bring us any closer to a ceasefire. No one in Gaza is helped by demonising people, however belatedly, for beginning to care.

[See also: A Jewish dirge for Rafah]

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