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'All Eyes on Rafah.' A viral post uses AI in the service of activism. Is it ethical?

Jenny Jarvie, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

The refugee tents stretch out across a vast sandy desert — tens of thousands lined up in neat rows, some organized in the center to spell out: "All Eyes on Rafah."

It's a viral post shared by millions of people across the globe — including Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, "Bridgerton" actress Nicola Coughlan, and model Bella Hadid — in response to Israel's missile strike Sunday that killed dozens of civilians in a camp for displaced Palestinians in the southern Gaza Strip city.

But the image, which features blurring, unusual shadows and pattern repetition typical of artificial intelligence, appears to be fake. Experts say it represents a new form of AI-generated activist imagery.

"It's one of the first major examples of AI being used in viral activism," said Matt Navarra, a social media consultant based in the United Kingdom. "This is an evolution of what we've seen before in using social media platforms to generate a message that potentially can go viral and draw the media and politicians' attention to a particular cause."

Generating an image from AI, Navarra said, can allow activists to avoid breaching copyright or circumvent social media platform rules on violence and incitement. Over the course of the Israel-Hamas war, many activists, journalists and human rights organizations have complained that social media companies such as Meta, which owns Instagram and Facebook, have removed images and videos of graphic content and violence in Gaza, including photos of injured and killed Palestinians.

"The average person isn't particularly good at using Photoshop or sourcing content, which is not going to breach copyright, or shows horrible things that people don't like or Meta wouldn't want posted on the platform," Navarra said. "Certainly, AI opens up that opportunity to create viral activist posts."

 

But just as the advent of generative AI offers activists an easier and cheaper tool to create powerful images without relying on stock photos or breaching Meta rules, it could also lead to potential abuse. Experts worry that some content creators are likely to create highly engaging, AI-generated images to promote false information or add links to spam.

"The goal may well be to get lots of viral attention, get lots of likes, get lots of shares, get lots of comments," Navarra said. "And then once it's gone viral to flip that page and add links to spam content or phishing content or to use it in other negative or spammy ways."

Others say that AI images offer a sanitized version of the Rafah refugee camp at a time when journalists and activists are struggling to share real photos from Gaza on social media.

"People have been posting really graphic and disturbing content to raise awareness and that gets censored while a piece of synthetic media goes viral, it is disturbing," said Deborah Brown, a senior researcher and advocate on digital rights at Human Rights Watch. She co-authored a report last December.

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