On Monday, a Texas grand jury charged a Maryland man with “aggravated assault with a deadly weapon” after authorities say he tweeted an animated flashing GIF designed to trigger Newsweek journalist Kurt Eichenwald’s epilepsy last year, “immediately” causing him to have a seizure.
Images: US District Court Northern District of Texas
29-year-old John Rivello was arrested in Salisbury, Maryland on federal cyberstalking charges last week. After sending Eichenwald the GIF in December, Rivello allegedly messaged another Twitter user, saying, “I hope this sends him into a seizure,” and, “let’s see if he dies.” Another message sent by Rivello allegedly said, “I know he has epilepsy,” and authorities say a search of his iCloud account found a photoshopped version of Eichenwald’s Wikipedia page with his date of death edited to be December 16, about when the GIF was sent.
According to the criminal complaint, Eichenwald’s wife took the picture of his notifications tab seen below, showing the GIF that allegedly triggered Eichenwald’s epilepsy.
Rivello apparently made significant efforts to keep his Twitter account untraceable. Prosecutors say he was using a Tracfone prepaid SIM card that included no subscriber information and his Twitter account was set up with a dummy email address. When authorities went to Tracfone’s partner, AT&T, with the phone number linked to the Twitter account, however, they were able to find the user’s iPhone model number. Authorities then went to Apple with the information they acquired from AT&T. This is where Rivello’s apparent attempt to conceal his identity failed. Prosecutors say he was using his personal iCloud account on what appeared to be his burner iPhone, an account that included a selfie with his driver’s licence (pictured above). The iCloud account also allegedly included the exact seizure-inducing GIF sent to Eichenwald, as well as a screenshot of the response apparently sent by his wife:
@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
Last week, Rivello was charged with violating federal cyberstalking laws, but using a GIF as a “deadly weapon” is a testament to how far internet culture has devolved. In 2017, people apparently have burner iPhones dedicated to trolling Twitter, which they use with seemingly genuine hopes of inflicting harm via GIF. It’s only going to get worse from here.