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2 artists claim credit for ‘All eyes on Rafah.’ The internet's most viral AI image

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

All eyes on Rafah. The slogan has been used to draw attention to the plight of Palestinians in southern Gaza, which is the latest front in Israel's war against Hamas. The phrase is also the centerpiece of an image that's gone viral on social media. In fact, it's the most widely shared AI-generated graphic ever. NPR traced the image's history and found that two different people claim they created it. Tech correspondent Bobby Allyn is here to tell us more. Bobby, millions have seen this image across their social media feeds but describe it for those who haven't seen it.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Yeah, sure. So it's an image with white tents that are arranged to say all eyes on Rafah, like you mentioned. It's surrounded by this dramatic scene, rows and rows of tent encampments and snow-capped mountains looming in the background cast a deep shadow. Of course, that's not the most accurate portrayal of Gaza's landscape, but it did strike a chord. And it was shared on social media, as you mentioned, more than 50 million times. Instagram insiders told me it's the most viral ever image to spread across social media. But unlike past AI-generated images of war, the concern here, A, isn't about whether it was fake or real. No, this issue was about its origins.

MARTÍNEZ: So were you able to find out who made it?

ALLYN: Yeah, I dug around online and stumbled upon a Facebook group dedicated to Malaysian AI artists. And I found that back in February, a version of this image was posted to the group. So I tracked down the woman who made it. Her name is Zila AbKa. She's Malaysian and lives on the island of Borneo. We talked for days over WhatsApp, and she told me, yeah, she made the image as a way to galvanize support for Palestinians. She put two watermarks on it, one with her name and another that said it was AI-generated. But the version that went super viral last week looked a little different.

MARTÍNEZ: Ooh, how was it different?

ALLYN: Well, for starters, it didn't have the original creator's watermarks because somebody else was taking credit for it. He put his own watermark on it. And I tracked this person down, too.

MARTÍNEZ: Oh, wow.

ALLYN: Yeah, I should say, nobody had found these people or gotten them to speak before this. But, you know, this person, his name was Amirul Shah. He's a 21-year-old college student - also in Malaysia. And he appears to have taken this original image, edited it with an AI tool to make it more zoomed out, placed those snowy mountains I mentioned in the background...

MARTÍNEZ: Oh, wow.

ALLYN: ...For some kind of cinematic effect and then put his own watermark on it and claimed it as his own. And when I talked to him online, he said, no, no, no, he didn't copy it. He made it on his own. But I examined the image with AI experts, and they all said, yeah, it sure does look like he ripped off the first one.

MARTÍNEZ: OK, Bobby, but here's the thing, OK? So ultimately, if this image comes from AI - artificial intelligence - why does the human matter here?

ALLYN: Right. Well, these questions about authorship and ownership are really at the heart of the internet we're increasingly dealing with every day - right? - one that is completely overrun with AI-generated images and text. And questions like who made this and who exactly owns this are often tricky to answer. Right now, it's a legal gray area where you can't copyright an AI-generated image because it was technically made by machine learning. And, you know, A, it's not unusual for these kinds of images to be constantly edited and replicated with AI, so the origins sometimes are just completely mysterious.

MARTÍNEZ: So isn't it ironic, though? An AI image of Gaza encampments, that goes viral. But real images of this war maybe aren't spreading the same way on social media.

ALLYN: Yeah, that's right. Some have noticed that violent images of war are censored by social media platforms, you know, or downplayed by algorithms. But, you know, also, this meme was timely. It was shared just after an Israeli strike killed dozens in Rafah. That prompted worldwide condemnation, so this AI image became a way to show support for the hundreds of thousands of people who were sheltering there. So was it the most effective way to show solidarity? That is yet another debate, A.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, for another time. That's NPR's Bobby Allyn. Bobby, thanks.

ALLYN: Hey, thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.