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‘All eyes on Rafah’ is the Internet's most viral AI image. Two artists are claiming credit

The image on the right was generated by Zila Abka in February. She says she created it with Microsoft’s Image Creator. On the left is the viral image that Amirul Shah said he created also using an AI image generator tool.
Amirul Shah/AI generated image and Zila Abka/Microsoft Image Creator
The image on the right was generated by Zila Abka in February. She says she created it with Microsoft’s Image Creator. On the left is the viral image that Amirul Shah said he created also using an AI image generator tool.

Two Malaysians separated by 900 miles are both taking credit for a synthetic image of Gaza that became the most viral ever AI-generated photo, underscoring the complexities of authorship and ownership in an online landscape increasingly overrun with content created by artificial intelligence.

The story behind the “all eyes on Rafah” graphic, which has been shared about 50 million times on Instagram and other platforms, likely begins on the northern tip of the Southeast Asian island of Borneo.

There, back in February, Zila AbKa was at her home playing around with Microsoft’s AI tool Image Creator.

AbKa is a 39-year-old science teacher and an AI art hobbyist. She’s also a pro-Palestinian activist. She wanted to make a piece of political art that depicted those sheltering in camps in the Gazan city of Rafah.

 Zila Abka is a school teacher in Malaysia. She is active in the Facebook group Prompters Malaya, a gathering place for mostly Malaysian AI artists to show their work.
/ Zila Abka
/
Zila Abka
Zila Abka is a school teacher in Malaysia. She is active in the Facebook group Prompters Malaya, a gathering place for mostly Malaysian AI artists to show their work.

After the phrase “all eyes on Rafah” started going viral, AbKa said she wrote a prompt for the AI tool to create an image that would have the phrase spelled out by white tents amid dense rows of other tent encampments. The words had become a rallying cry after a World Health Organization representative used them to draw attention to the situation in the region where hundreds of thousands of displaced people have fled.

When Microsoft’s Image Creator spit out a graphic, AbKa put two watermarks on it: One indicating it was generated by AI; another saying she was the creator.

She liked it. So she shared a post on Feb. 14 in her language — Malay — to the Facebook group Prompters Malaya, a gathering place of about 250,000 mostly Malaysians who share AI-generated art, sometimes about the war in Gaza.

“I wanted to spread and highlight the issue and hoped that everybody would do whatever they could to show solidarity with Gazans right now,” AbKa told NPR.

AbKa has not previously spoken out about making the image.

AbKa: 'I think this is mine,' but the watermarks are gone

From there, she basically forgot about it — until last week, when she saw a very similar image on Instagram, spreading rapidly following an Israeli strike in the city that killed dozens and prompted worldwide condemnation.

But the image was altered. Her watermarks were gone. And the image was expanded to include snow-capped mountains looming over the tents, an almost surrealist touch, an AI riff on Gaza’s Middle Eastern landscape.

 Zila Abka generated this image in February.
Zila Abka / Microsoft Image Creator
/
Microsoft Image Creator
Zila Abka generated this image in February.

At first, she was offended that someone had laundered her image and removed her name from it. In addition, she was initially alarmed that the “AI generated” disclaimer was missing just as tens of millions of people were re-sharing it across the internet.

She zoomed in to examine every letter and corner of the viral image. She concluded that it had to be hers.

“Everything about the structure of the words and the arrangement of the ‘tents,’ it’s all the same, except for the expanded part,” she said. “When I saw it, I thought, yeah, I think this is mine.”

But her annoyance over not getting credit soon dissipated.

“I don’t think any generated AI image is fully someone’s belonging,” AbKa said.

Indeed, the U.S. Copyright Office has repeatedly rejected copyright protection for AI-generated images since they lack human authorship, placing the AI images in a legal gray area.

It was, however, AbKa’s unique prompt that summoned the image. She said that should be worth something, though galvanizing support for Gaza was always her main impetus.

“If the aim is to spread awareness,” AbKa said about the version of the image that went viral, “then I think I should thank that person.”

The person behind the account 'Shahv4012'

 Amirul Shah is a college student and photographer in Malaysia. The “all eyes on Rafah” image he created has been shared nearly 50 million times on Instagram.
/ Amirul Shah
/
Amirul Shah
Amirul Shah is a college student and photographer in Malaysia. The “all eyes on Rafah” image he created has been shared nearly 50 million times on Instagram.

That person is Amirul Shah, known as Shahv4012 on Instagram. He is also Malaysian.

The two do not know each other, nor have they ever communicated.

AbKa believes he took her image, edited it and created an Instagram “template,” which has since surged on social media, amassing nearly 50 million shares on Instagram and millions more on other social media platforms.

AbKa thinks Shah cropped her image right above her watermarks, then edited it with a tool that uses AI to expand and re-imagine the background of a photo. She believes this because she tried it herself on her own AI rendering and got results strikingly similar to the viral image.

Shah’s image has his own watermark on it with the tag of his Instagram account dedicated to his photography, @chaa.my_, giving the impression that the whole thing was his original undertaking.

 Amirul Shah added his generated image to an Instagram template that was amplified by celebrities like Dua Lipa and Bella Hadid.
Amirul Shah / AI generated image
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AI generated image
Amirul Shah added his generated image to an Instagram template that was amplified by celebrities like Dua Lipa and Bella Hadid.

When Shah was reached for an interview, he denied copying AbKa’s creation. Instead, he shared a different version of events.

Shah, a 21-year-old college student in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, has not previously spoken out about his process.

A photography enthusiast, Shah says he was toying around with an AI image generator recently. He thinks he used Microsoft’s Image Creator, the same service AbKa used, but he claims he can’t remember.

When he added it to an Instagram "template," it ricocheted around the world, as influencers and celebrities like Dua Lipa and Bella Hadid amplified it to their millions of followers.

The image looks uncannily like AbKa’s, but he claims he hadn't even seen AbKa's before making his own.

Still, the size of the words, placement of each letter and AI-generated clusters of tents next to the phrase are identical. But Shah’s version is portrayed from an higher aerial view, with deeper and longer shadows cast by snowy mountains.

He said he was giving all sorts of Gaza-related AI images a try as a form of activism, not angling for virality.

“My intention was not for popularity,” Shah told NPR. “I wanted to uphold justice for all Palestinians who are there.”

Shah says AI images spread faster

Technologists say that generating the same exact AI image twice is exceedingly unlikely.

In dozens of attempts to recreate the image using Microsoft’s Image Creator, NPR was not able to prompt the tool to create a visual that came close to the viral one. Most of the time, the tool struggled to correctly spell “All eyes on Rafah,” a limitation of many AI image generators, which tend to depict words misspelled or warped in some way.

 These are the results produced for NPR by Microsoft’s Image Creator after given a prompt to produce a realistic-looking aerial photo of Rafah, with the phrase “all eyes on Rafah” superimposed among the tents.
NPR / Microsoft Image Creator
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Microsoft Image Creator
These are the results produced for NPR by Microsoft’s Image Creator after given a prompt to produce a realistic-looking aerial photo of Rafah, with the phrase “all eyes on Rafah” superimposed among the tents.

Shah, who regularly shares posts on social media highlighting the plight of Palestinians, said he has noticed that real photos and videos of the war tend to have limited reach on Instagram.

“The picture from AI can spread faster in a short time,” he said. Shah says another problem is that he has had graphic images of war removed by Instagram for violating the platform’s policies. He said he’s aware that repeat violations can mean that “users can get blocked,” he said.

Felix Simon, a research fellow at the University of Oxford who studies AI’s impact on public discourse, said the image being created by artificial intelligence fueled its virality far less than other factors.

“The simplicity of the slogan, the symbolism at work, the timing and political context, and the fact that it was shared by celebrities,” said Simon, adding that “the lack of graphic content makes it less likely to get taken down, which helps, too.”

It is a concern that has been echoed by other activists who have claimed graphic imagery that shows the atrocities of the war in Gaza can be removed from platforms, or suppressed by social media algorithms.

Some commentators criticized the meme for portraying a sanitized version of war that renders human horrors on the ground in Gaza into an easily-shareable AI image.

Both AbKa and Shah reject that idea, saying AI images can be a useful way to grab peoples' attention and make them engage in some way with the war.

Yet there is no agreement among them about who created the viral image that has spurred discussion around the world about the authenticity of online activism and renewed attention on an internet increasingly rife with realistic-looking AI depictions.

When pressed in direct messages on Instagram for a response to AbKa’s contention that her image was copied, Shah blocked an NPR reporter.

NPR researcher Susie Cummings contributed to this report.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.