In December, Newsweek reporter Kurt Eichenwald was tweeted at by someone who sent him an image of the words “You deserve a seizure for your posts,” over a flashing, strobing image. Eichenwald, who has epilepsy, says the image caused him to have a seizure. On Friday morning, the FBI announced they’ve arrested the person responsible for the tweet. The FBI (and local law enforcement agencies) can’t seem to address violent threats against women online, but this investigation was opened and shut within three months.
Twitter user “Jew Goldstein” tweeted at Eichenwald on December 16 with the strobing image; a short while later, someone claiming to be Eichenwald’s wife responded from his account.
Eichenwald filed a petition in Dallas County Court on December 19, seeking records from Twitter about Jew Goldstein’s identity. Records show he also filed a police report in Dallas against the Twitter user for assault on December 21.
The Twitter user, using the name “John Doe a/k/a Ari Goldstein,” filed an affidavit in response to the civil suit claiming that he’d pulled the gif off the site GIPHY and copied and pasted it into a Tweet: “I did not type any words or other content into or onto the GIF -again, I copied and pasted the GIF, in its entirety, as it was created by someone else.”
Doe added that he hadn’t intended to cause a seizure (and disputes that a seconds-long gif would have the potential to do so):
Third, I did not intend to cause anyone to suffer a seizure, nor did I appreciate or understand that the subject GIF had the potential of causing anyone (including Petitioner) to suffer a seizure of any kind (if in fact it has or had that potential). I merely posted the GIF to annoy Petitioner, with whom I disagree politically. The Petitioner’s Twitter page is full of political commentary and often biting, personal, verbal attacks and memes (photographs and drawings with political satire). These Tweets are both by Petitioner and literally thousands of others.
Eichenwald dropped the civil suit in January, after he said he’d learned Goldstein’s identity and no longer needed to depose Twitter. He claimed this morning that after a multi-state investigation, the Twitter user has been arrested and charged. He warned other would-be strobe tweeters to expect the same swift justice:
The FBI confirmed to us that an arrest was made this morning, but wouldn’t comment further. A spokesperson said a press release is forthcoming.
The investigation into Eichenwald’s alleged harasser, then, took just three months from start to finish. But women game developers, journalists, and others who have received death threats on Twitter and other forms of violent harassment—some of it spilling over into actions that threaten their physical safety—haven’t been afforded the same access to speedy justice.
Reporting death threats or violent harassment online frequently leads to absolutely no action from the police or the FBI. (In 2015, I wrote that violent threats against female journalists have become so common — and the police response so lackluster— that it’s spawning a new genre of journalism, which I dubbed “harassment lit.”) Zoe Quinn, the game developer viciously harassed and threatened since 2014 by a Gamergate-affiliated mob, has written at length about realizing that the court system wouldn’t protect her. She dropped harassment charges against her ex-boyfriend in February 2016 after concluding that continuing with the legal process wouldn’t stem the abuse. She’s also talked about how ignorant the police and court officer can be of the internet, making it even harder to get them to understand the problem, let alone address it:
The spin is even more successful in these cases, because of how disconnected judges, lawyers, police, and juries often are from the internet. One told me to simply give up my career and stop going offline if I didn’t like the abuse. He barely bothered to look at my huge stack of evidence before declaring he had no idea what the internet was about and didn’t want to know.
(There is a rumored FBI investigation into the threats against Quinn, according to a Washington Post story from last year, but it has produced no prosecutions.)
In February, Business Insider UK reported that two men weren’t charged after they confessed to the FBI on video that they’d sent death threats to game developer Brianna Wu. The FBI let one man go after he said the threats were “a joke.” According to an FBI file, another suspect “was recorded on video and audio by the FBI confessing to making 40 to 50 threatening calls, and yet no charges were brought,” for reasons that remain opaque.
For some reason, Eichenwald’s case spurred a different response: His attorney Steve Lierberman told Newsweek the man was arrested in Salisbury, Maryland shortly before 7 a.m., and will be arraigned in Baltimore later today. Lieberman added, “What [this person] 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.”
Update, 6:54 p.m.:
The Department of Justice has identified the arrested man in a press release as John Rayne Rivello, 29, of Salisbury, Maryland. They also included some very disturbing details from an affidavit attached to the criminal complaint; prosecutors allege that Rivello knew Eichenwald had epilepsy and DMed others on Twitter saying both “Spammed this at [Eichenwald let’s see if he dies” and “I hope this sends him into a seizure.” The affidavit also says that an image of a fake obituary was recovered from Rivello’s iCloud account, altered to show Eichenwald’s date of death as December 16, the day of the incident.
From the press release:
According to the allegations in the affidavit filed with the complaint, on Dec. 15, 2016, the victim, who is known to suffer from epilepsy, received a message via Twitter from Rivello. The tweet contained an animated strobe image embedded with the statement, “You deserve a seizure for your post.” Upon viewing the flashing strobe image the victim immediately suffered a seizure.
Additionally, according to the affidavit, evidence received pursuant to a search warrant showed Rivello’s Twitter account contained direct messages from Rivello’s account to other Twitter users concerning the victim. Among those direct messages included statements by Rivello, including “I hope this sends him into a seizure,” “Spammed this at [victim] let’s see if he dies,” and “I know he has epilepsy.” Additional evidence received pursuant to a search warrant showed Rivello’s iCloud account contained a screenshot of a Wikipedia page for the victim, which had been altered to show a fake obituary with the date of death listed as Dec. 16, 2016. Rivello’s iCloud account also contained screen shots 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.