Millions Shared The 'All Eyes On Rafah' Post. Is It Slacktivism Or The Start Of A Larger Conversation? | CBC News

Neat rows of tents, some organized into letters that read “All eyes on Rafah,” are featured in a now-viral social media post meant to shed light on what Palestinians are facing in Gaza, but it’s prompting criticism from all sides — even those who are pro-Palestinian.

The image, which many believe to be AI-generated, was first uploaded to Instagram on Monday by user @shavh4012 using a template feature that allowed others to share it. And they did: It’s been reposted by more than 47 million people on Instagram alone, including celebrities like Bella Hadid, Dua Lipa and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai.  

It surfaced the day after an Israeli airstrike on a Rafah tent camp killed dozens. More than half of the dead were women, children and elderly people, Palestinian health officials said. The strike took place in an area that had previously been declared a safe zone, resulting in global condemnation. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday said the strike went “tragically wrong,” but reinforced the nation’s commitment to a complete defeat of Hamas. 

Two days after the Israeli airstrike, Gaza officials said shelling hit a cluster of tents in Al-Mawasi, west of Rafah, an area Israel had advised civilians to move to for safety. Israel denied striking the camp. 

By then, the “All eyes on Rafah” post had eclipsed Instagram and jumped to other social media platforms.  

WATCH | Deadly airstrike in Rafah prompts global backlash:

Israeli operation continues in Rafah as international backlash growsThe Israeli military is continuing its operations in Rafah despite international calls for it to stop. It’s facing harsh criticism after dozens of Palestinian civilians were killed in an Israeli airstrike on Sunday. Today, the Israel Defense Forces responded to that backlash, calling what happened a ‘tragic mishap.’

Critics say it’s an example of “slacktivism” — an easy to share post offering vague support that shows a sanitized version of Rafah, while actual Palestinian narratives are often suppressed or discredited. They also note that the post is going viral precisely because it doesn’t show graphic images of what’s happening on the ground in Gaza and could be a starting point for larger conversations about the region. 

The Gaza health ministry says more than 36,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s offensive, launched after the Hamas-led attack on Israel on Oct. 7. About 1,200 people were killed and more than 250 were taken hostage in the attack, according to Israeli tallies.

‘Slacktivism’ and digital erasureThe “All eyes on Rafah” post is being criticized as an example of what’s known as slacktivism, a surface-level attempt to support a political or social movement online. 

“It’s a low effort, simple sort of token gesture,” said Matt Navarra, a U.K. social media consultant and analyst with more than 20 years experience working in social media. 

“People will say it’s a lazy, distracting, unhelpful and not authentic way of posting about something serious.” 

Others suggest it isn’t an accurate representation of what’s actually happening in Gaza. 

Ameera Kawash, a Palestinian-American artist based in the U.K. who researches generative AI and its impact on Palestinian narratives and representation, says the post is an example of digital erasure. 

Malak Filfel, 23, survived the airstrike that started a fire at a tent camp in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on May 26. The deadly strike on an area that had previously been declared a safe zone resulted in global condemnation. (Mohamed el Saife/CBC)According to Kawash, the use of what appears to be AI-generated images of tents in the post doesn’t show any of the “daily horrors and massacres” and sanitizes the destruction and violence Palestinians are facing on the ground. 

“The image has provoked a strong reaction from Palestinians and advocates who believe that it is dehumanizing, that it digitally erases Palestinian experiences,” she said. 

“So there’s this feeling Palestinians are going viral, but they’re also somehow invisible at the same time.” 

Origins and pushbackThe first version of the phrasing in the viral post materialized in February, when Rik Peeperkorn, a World Health Organization representative for Gaza and the occupied West Bank, spoke at a media briefing in Rafah and described the tensions in the city as Israel mulled launching a ground invasion. 

“All eyes are on Rafah,” he said at the time.

The phrase quickly became a popular slogan used by pro-Palestinian protesters at rallies and demonstrations around the world.   

A protester with a sign reading ‘All eyes on Rafah’ takes part in a rally in support of the Palestinian people in Paris on May 9. The phrase has become a popular slogan for Palestinian supports looking to shed light on what is happening on the ground in Gaza. (Victoria Valdivia/Hans Lucas/AFP/Getty Images)In response to the viral image, others have shared posts using the same wording but different images they say better reflect the reality facing Palestinians in Gaza. 

One featured a photo of Palestinians at a mass funeral mourning relatives killed during an Israeli strike on a refugee camp on Dec. 25, 2023. It was taken by Mahmud Hams, a Palestinian journalist based in Gaza. 

Here’s a real image to use to call awareness for ALL EYES ON RAFAH and the ongoing genocide happening in Gaza and across Palestine

—@indiespicee”There are so many really brave citizen journalists in Gaza who are risking their lives on a daily basis to share with the world and to document the daily horrors and massacres and mass devastation that they’re witnessing,” said Kawash.

She says there’s been decades of media bias against Palestinians who feel that they’ve been asking the world to listen to their stories, experiences and narratives, “and these have been systematically discredited.”

Meanwhile, some Israeli supporters see the popularity of the post as an example of how the events of Oct. 7 have been overshadowed.

Many shared an Instagram story created with the same sharable template as the original viral post, but instead displaying the words “Where were your eyes on October 7?” It also features what appears to be an AI-generated image of an armed Hamas militant standing over a diapered baby amid destroyed homes. 

The State of Israel Instagram account posted the image on Instagram stories, and also on X, formerly known as Twitter. That account also later suggested the “Where were your eyes” post had been censored by Instagram.  

We will NEVER stop talking about October 7th.

We will NEVER stop fighting for the hostages.

—@IsraelGenerating discussionDespite the criticism that real violence in Gaza is being ignored in favour of simplistic viral posts, Kawash and Navarra say the “All eyes on Rafah” image has been helpful in generating discussion around a topic that’s seen its share of censorship online.

Navarra says Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, has particularly strict moderation of posts. “Violence, death, scenes from war will always get banned or blocked,” he said.

Research from Human Rights Watch and other organizations suggests that Palestinians have experienced systematic censorship, suppression and even deletion online.  

Between October and November 2023, Human Rights Watch said it documented more than 1,050 takedowns and other suppression of content on Instagram and Facebook that had been posted by Palestinians and their supporters, about human rights abuses.

Meta didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Despite her concerns about the “All eyes on Rafah” post, Kawash believes it could be a good starting point for important conversations. 

“If it prompts people to be more actionable, to get involved, to really care more, then that would be a good thing.” 

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