Press “Send” for Seizure - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
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Press “Send” for Seizure

Press “Send” for Seizure

Social media platforms, originally intended to promote human interaction, are now being used as a platform for individuals to inflict physical harm on others. The Federal Bureau of Investigation recently arrested John Rayne Rivello in Salisbury, Maryland, for allegedly sending Dallas reporter Kurt Eichenwald a seizure-inducing tweet in December 2016.1

Eichenwald, who writes for Newsweek and Vanity Fair, has talked and written extensively about his battles with epilepsy.2 Due to his coverage of the 2016 presidential election, Eichenwald has been a frequent target of Twitter attacks.3 Eichenwald was an outspoken critic of then-President-elect Donald Trump, writing that Trump’s business ties could “jeopardize” the United States,4 and received the epileptogenic tweet after appearing on Fox News show Tucker Carlson Tonight, where Eichenwald argued with the host about his coverage of Trump.5

According to a criminal complaint, the tweet that caused Eichenwald to have a seizure contained an animated image (GIF) of a strobe light, as well as the message: “You deserve a seizure for your post.”6

Rivello also allegedly sent messages from his Twitter account about Eichenwald, saying “I know he has epilepsy,” “I hope this sends him into a seizure” and “let’s see if he dies.”7 Investigators also found on Rivello’s iCloud account screenshots of Eichenwald’s Wikipedia page (with his date of death altered to the date he received the tweet) and a Dallas Observer article about Eichenwald’s efforts to find the person who sent the tweet, as well as a list of things that trigger epileptic seizures.8

Eichenwald’s lawyer, Steven Lieberman, has argued that sending a GIF of a strobe light is “no different than a bomb sent in the mail or anthrax sent in an envelope” because it “triggers a physical effect.”9 Before now, lawsuits involving harmful attacks on social media (and the internet in general) have “focused on how online content, such as disparaging and abusive messages and pictures, can harm victims emotionally and even increase the risk of suicide.”10 According to Vivek Krishnamurthy, an assistant director at the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard Law School, “This is an interesting and unique case in that there are lots of online attacks that can have physical consequences, such as an attack on an electrical grid or the control of air traffic control, . . . [b]ut this is distinguishable because it is a targeted physical attack that was personal, using a plain-Jane tool.”11

For sending the seizure-inducing tweet, Rivello was arrested on a cyberstalking charge; Eichenwald has also tweeted that Rivello is further “expected to be indicted by the Dallas district attorney on different charges.”12

Eichenwald says that since the incident, more than 40 people have sent him strobe GIFS.13

 

Jon Mandarakas

Jon is a second-year J.D. Candidate at Fordham University School of Law and a staff member of the Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal.