March 24th, 2017 – A gif tweeted to journalist Kurt Eichenwald last December triggered a seizure, and now that act is being charged as assault with a deadly weapon, according to a grand jury indictment. A Dallas grand jury indicted John Rayne Rivello, a 29-year-old veteran from Maryland, on Monday and has since enhanced his gif tweet as a hate crime.
Eichenwald, a senior writer at Newsweek and a NY Times bestselling author, had been vocal about his opposition to Trump and had also been vocal about his battle with epilepsy. Those two factors seemed to be the motivating factor for Rivello who, on December 15th, 2016, sent Eichenwald a mulit-colored strobe-light gif along with the message “You deserve a seizure for your posts.”
According to The New York Times, Eichenwald was at his home office the night of 12/15 and opened a file from Rivello’s twitter handle, @jew_goldstein, that had been sent as a reply to the journalist’s earlier tweet. His lawyer claims he fell to the floor after the strobe light triggered a seizure, lost feeling in his left hand and had issues speaking for several weeks. His wife replied back to the image from Eichenwald’s account saying “@jew_goldstein This is his wife, you caused a seizure. I have your information and have called the police to report the assault.”
@jew_goldstein This is his wife, you caused a seizure. I have your information and have called the police to report the assault.
Eichenwald’s lawyer, Steven Lieberman, characterizes this assault in the same manner as someone sending an explosive in the mail.
“This electronic message was no different than a bomb sent in the mail or anthrax sent in an envelope,” Lieberman said. “It triggers a physical effect.”
The case is not familiar grounds for those inside and outside the legal world. While lawsuits focused on bullying, hate speech and cyberstalking have grown in recent years, a gif being seen as assault with a deadly weapon is new legal consideration. Fortune spoke to defense lawyer Tor Ekeland about the potential new precedent.
“I’m unaware of anybody being criminally prosecuted for this… How do you know a photo can or can’t set off a medical condition? You can see the slippery slope here,” Ekeland told NBC News, adding Rivello may try to invoke a First Amendment defense.
Claiming ignorance is a bit of a stretch when investigators found evidence of planning the attack and knowledge of what the consequences would be on the part of Rivello. A search warrant for his social media account allowed light into the planning as it found direct messages to other Twitter accounts. Rivello told fellow users “I hope this sends him into a seizure” and “I know he has epilepsy.”
Investigators also found screenshots of an altered Wikipedia page (it showed a fake death for the journalist) and of a list of common epilepsy seizure triggers from epilepsy.com on Rivello’s digital accounts.
The strobe gifs didn’t stop with Rivello according to Eichenwald. He spoke with Good Morning America shortly after the incident saying:
“I can’t look at my Twitter feed anymore,” Eichenwald said. “Apparently a lot of people find this very funny. A lot of people who identify themselves as Trump supporters are loading up my feed with more strobes.”
He continued to admonish the actions on Twitter in December but has remained relatively silent on the issue up until last week when Rivello was arrested.
Finally, a notice to those now sending strobes. We are getting your accounts canceled, one at a time. So if u want to stay on twitter, stop.
In a statement Tuesday, Rivello’s attorneys said the veteran has post-traumatic stress and has apologized to Eichenwald. He’s also seeking counseling from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
When gifs are often filled with cats, actors and funny falls, the use of one as a premeditated tool for harm has brought opinions from all sides. Do you think this incident should be charged as assault with a deadly weapon? Share your thoughts below.