In what’s thought to be the first decision of its kind, a Texas grand jury has decided that a GIF can be a deadly weapon.
On Friday, police arrested John Rayne Rivello, 29, of Salisbury, Maryland, for allegedly sending a seizure-inducing GIF via Twitter to an epileptic journalist. The target, Kurt Eichenwald, is a senior writer at Newsweek and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.
Eichenwald suffered a seizure when he viewed the flashing strobe image.
Rivello was charged in Texas on Monday with one count of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. The charge carries a hate-crime enhancement due to an alleged anti-Semitic bias associated with the crime.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) said that the flashing GIF image was accompanied by this statement:
YOU DESERVE A SEIZURE FOR YOUR POSTS
Soon after the episode, this tweet went out from Eichenwald’s account:
@jew_goldstein This is his wife, you caused a seizure. I have your information and have called the police to report the assault.
— Kurt Eichenwald (@kurteichenwald) December 16, 2016
Eichenwald’s wife had found him during his seizure, placed him safely on the floor, and called emergency services. She also took a picture of the tweet and sent out the message above.
@jew_goldstein’s seizure-inducing tweet came not long after Eichenwald had appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show. The two had argued during the show over Eichenwald’s claim that President Donald Trump was once institutionalized in a mental hospital. (The Washington Post reports that there’s no evidence for the claim.)
Besides the GIF, according to the affidavit, a search warrant uncovered other, direct messages about Eichenwald, sent from Rivello’s account to other Twitter users, including these:
I hope this sends him into a seizure.
Spammed this at [Eichenwald] let’s see if he dies.
I know he has epilepsy.
[Eichenwald] deserves to have his liver pecked out by a pack of emus.
Investigators also found that Rivello’s iCloud account contained a screenshot of a Wikipedia page for the victim that had been doctored to show a fake obituary with the date of death listed as December 16 2016.
According to the FBI, Rivello was sending the message via a Twitter account he had allegedly taken out in the name of Ari Goldstein, with the handle @jew_goldstein.
The FBI’s criminal complaint (PDF) says that the potentially deadly tweet was sent on or about December 15 2016.
Prosecutors say that Rivello’s iCloud account also contained screenshots from epilepsy.com with a list of commonly reported epilepsy seizure triggers and from dallasobserver.com discussing the victim’s report to the Dallas Police Department and his attempt to identify the Twitter user. It also included screen captures of Eichenwald’s wife’s message about the seizure.
According to the criminal complaint, the seizure lasted “approximately eight minutes” as Eichenwald experienced “a complete loss of his bodily functions and mental faculty”. He was impaired, mentally and bodily, for several months, and is susceptible to more seizures because of the GIF attack.
The Dallas News reports that Rivello’s lawyers had released a statement saying that their client, a Marine veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, immediately apologized for the incident.
The newspaper quoted from the statement:
He is seeking help from the VA. And we are proud to defend this young man who gave so much defending his country.
A series of warrants eventually led to Rivello. First, police served Twitter with a warrant for subscriber information on the @jew_goldstein account. That warrant revealed the phone number used to create the account and the direct messages sent to other Twitter users about Eichenwald.
A second search warrant, served on AT&T, showed that the phone number was associated with a prepaid account that had no subscriber information. But a review of AT&T toll records uncovered an associated iPhone.
Finally, police served a third search warrant on Apple for the iCloud account information associated with the iPhone, and that led to Rivello.
Eichenwald said on Twitter last week that he’s received dozens of flashing tweets since the @jew_goldstein attack, and that the FBI has been informed of them all.
More than 40 ppl sent strobes once they found out they could trigger seizures. Details of their cases are with the FBI. Stop sending them.
— Kurt Eichenwald (@kurteichenwald) March 17, 2017
In a discussion with Newsweek, Eichenwald’s attorney, Steven Liberman, likened the GIF to a terrorist attack:
What Mr Rivello did with his Twitter message was no different from someone sending a bomb in the mail or sending an envelope filled with anthrax spores.
It wasn’t the content of the communication that was intended to persuade somebody or make them feel badly about themselves; this was an electronic communication that was designed to have a physical effect.