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One image, millions of eyeballs: A social media effort to draw attention to Rafah surges


BY  VERDA SUBZWARI
Thursday June 6, 2024

The image shows tents in a camp, highlighted to spell out one single phrase: “All Eyes on Rafah.” It has been shared more than 50 million times.

A single image, not even an authentic photograph, is the focus of a singular campaign on Instagram that has caught the attention of the algorithm and captured the imaginations of users across national borders — a show of support for the Palestinian movement as the war between Israel and Hamas enters its eighth month.

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The simple AI-generated image was created and first shared by a Malaysia-based Instagram user and has gone viral on the social media platform, with a message that attempts to call attention to the small southern city of Rafah after Israeli airstrikes killed at least 37 people in a camp for displaced Palestinians. As international outrage followed the incident, the phrase took center stage in the online discourse.

According to Noura Erakat, a Palestinian-American activist, this reaction is a gut response to what she calls the failure of an international system to do its work.

“I don’t think there was a coordinated purpose. It was literally just an outpouring of anger, frustration, all at once, a global condemnation in lieu of actual international institutions being able to apply meaningful pressure on Israel,” says Erakat, an associate professor of Africana studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

The phrase ‘All Eyes on Rafah’ has been mobilized before. According to Erakat, it streamlined the focus on Israel’s military campaign and scrutinized it.

“Standing at attention and ready is also ensuring we are watching closely, scrutinizing with care and so that” — as she puts it — “Israeli atrocities are not given a pass.”

SOCIAL MEDIA’S ROLE IN THE ISRAEL-HAMAS WAR

There have been multiple social media trends and campaigns during the Israel-Hamas war. People use their platforms to be a part of such trends for varied reasons.

“Being a part of the ‘All eyes on Rafah’ trend is people’s way of lending their support and helping spread the message of what’s happening in Israel,” says Matt Navarra, a social media consultant and industry analyst. “It is also to be part of that movement or that change in any small way that they can.”

Social media campaigns around political issues are hardly new, and many have grabbed such attention, from “Black Lives “Matter” to #metoo to — an early example — the Arab Spring movement of 2011. Israel’s supporters have taken to social media throughout the war to document Hamas violence or the plight of hostages held by the militant group. When they generate enough activity and engagement, many claim millions of eyeballs.

The ultimate goal: to influence those who can make change happen, whether they be presidents or prime ministers or people who hold influence and away. Any of those, Navarra says, can have a significant impact.

HOW THE IMAGE MOVES AROUND

According to Navarra, the slogan has been around for some time.

Months ago, Israel months identified Rafah as Hamas’ last major stronghold and vowed to invade, despite the presence of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians who had sought shelter there. It sent in ground troops last month and most civilians have fled, though Israel continues to say its operations there are limited.

The slogan has gained momentum since last week’s deadly airstrike. Instagram influencers and celebrities in general have shared the image and the message, and when you follow a big name you are more likely to share the same content. That helps account for ‘All Eyes on Rafah’ becoming so viral.

Meta has sometimes removed images and posts related to Israel and Gaza, citing violations to its guidelines. This, though, appears to be an AI-generated image that doesn’t depict anything that conflicts with those rules — it shows no violence or anything explicit or menacing — which has enabled it to thrive in the social ecosystem. It is a captivating image that grabs attention when it lands on your feed along with the caption, Navarra says.

Celebrities from around the world have posted it on their Instagram accounts — including such Indian luminaries as Alia Bhatt, Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Kareena Kapoor Khan. Other celebrities include American supermodel Bella Hadid and Nicola Coughlan from the Netflix show ‘Bridgerton’, American comedian Hasan Minhaj and British singer Dua Lipa.

Social media influencers also took part in this trend and shared the image widely on the platform. Aaliya Ilyasi, for example, has more than 89,000 followers on Instagram and has been vocal about her opinion about the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict since the very beginning.

“My intention is to bring attention to the plight of the Palestinian people, to stand in solidarity with the people who are reliant on voices like ours right now, and to spread awareness,” Ilyasi says. “Someone will have to bear witness to this, and I guess that’s us.”



 





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