Twitter trolls target Epilepsy Foundation with seizure-inducing GIFs
The Epilepsy Foundation is striking back against a co-ordinated campaign by Twitter trolls to flood certain hashtags and feeds with flashing GIFs designed to trigger seizures in vulnerable individuals. The cyber-attacks follow on from a similar attack targeting a journalist in 2016 that resulted in the triggering of a life-threatening seizure via Twitter.
“Flashing lights at certain intensities or certain visual patterns can trigger seizures in those with photosensitive epilepsy,” says chief medical and innovation officer at the Epilepsy Foundation, Jacqueline French. “While the population of those with photosensitive epilepsy is small, the impact can be quite serious. Many are not even aware they have photosensitivity until they have a seizure.”
In the first week of November, the Twitter account of the Epilepsy Foundation was the subject of a malicious new form of cyber-attack. Both the Foundation’s Twitter handle and an assortment of epilepsy-related hashtags were comprehensively flooded with videos and GIFs containing flashing and strobing lights.
More than 30 separate Twitter accounts have been identified in the attack, which took place during National Epilepsy Awareness Month. The Foundation has now filed formal criminal complaints and is working with law enforcement agencies to track down those involved in the operation. It is unknown at this stage how many people were affected by the attempt to induce seizures.
“These attacks are no different than a person carrying a strobe light into a convention of people with epilepsy and seizures, with the intention of inducing seizures and thereby causing significant harm to the participants,” says Allison Nichol, the Foundation’s director of legal advocacy. “The fact that these attacks came during National Epilepsy Awareness Month only highlights their reprehensible nature. The Foundation is fully cooperating with law enforcement and intends to utilize all available avenues to ensure that those responsible are held fully accountable.”
Sadly, this is not the first time seizure-inducing media has been used to maliciously target epileptic individuals online. In December 2016 veteran journalist Kurt Eichenwald was scrolling through his Twitter notifications when he came across a violently strobing GIF emblazoned with the all-caps message, “YOU DESERVE A SEIZURE FOR YOUR POSTS.”
Eichenwald immediately suffered a major seizure, which he says could have killed him if his wife hadn’t swiftly intervened.
A few months later a man named John Rivello was arrested and charged for sending the offending tweet. Rivello was charged with "assault with a deadly weapon" in what was possibly the first case in history to frame a GIF as a deadly weapon.
“[Rivello] intentionally, knowingly and recklessly cause[d] bodily injury … by inducing a seizure with an animated strobe image, knowing that the complainant was susceptible to seizures and that such animations are capable of causing seizures and said defendant did use and exhibit a deadly weapon, to-wit: a Tweet and a Graphics Interchange Format (GIF) and an Electronic Device and Hands,” the original indictment stated.
To describe the subsequent, and ongoing, court case as strange would be an understatement. Rivello’s initial defense was a claim of First Amendment free speech privilege, but as Brooklyn-based lawyer Charles Star succinctly explains in The Outline, this position ignores the difference between a medium and a message.
“The act of tweeting brought the charge, not the message,” Star writes. “Punching someone in the face communicates a message, but it isn’t one protected by the First Amendment; if you yell loud enough to blow out someone’s eardrums, it doesn’t really matter what you are saying.”
Another defense Rivello presented was simply suggesting the act of sending a tweet could not be equated with a physically violent action such as assault. But Chief US District Judge James Bredar dismissed this argument with a ruling that compellingly presented a scenario whereby the photons of light hitting a person’s eyes could constitute an act of physical violence.
“Light comes in rays, or waves, comprised in part by photons,” the judge’s order explains. “Photons hit the retina and are converted into electrical signals. … Such electrical signals from strobing images ‘can trigger seizures in certain individuals with epilepsy.'”
While the scenario is certainly a clear instance of someone trying to maliciously harm a vulnerable individual, it highlights the ongoing game of catch-up our legal system is playing in an attempt to keep up with modern 21st century modes of digital communication. From revenge porn to swatting, there are many novel crimes that have arisen over the past decade, and our courts often struggle to contort 20th century laws and regulations to fit entirely new types of criminal activities.
The case is currently on hold until later in January 2020, but it is suggested Rivello is now likely to plead guilty to the charge.
Source: Epilepsy Foundation