Criminal Justice

Twitter user charged with aggravated assault for sending strobe image that gave journalist a seizure

  • Print.


A Maryland man has been criminally charged after sending a tweet with an animated image of a strobe light to a journalist who has epilepsy, the Washington Post reports. The journalist was sent into a seizure after seeing the tweet, according to court documents.

John Rayne Rivello, 29, is facing charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon for sending the image to Newsweek senior writer Kurt Eichenwald via Twitter in December. The image was accompanied by the sentence: “YOU DESERVE A SEIZURE FOR YOUR POSTS.”

The tweet triggered an eight-minute seizure for Eichenwald, who had written about his epilepsy before, including two months before the tweet. His attorney, Steven Lieberman of the Washington, D.C., intellectual property firm Rothwell, Figg, Ernst & Manbeck, said Eichenwald was unable to speak for a time afterward and was “almost fully incapacitated for several days.” Eichenwald’s wife tweeted shortly after the seizure that she would report the tweet to police as an assault.

Rivello sent the tweet from an account called @jew_goldstein, and prosecutors allege that it was motivated in part by anti-Semitism. Rivello also was arrested in Maryland for cyberstalking.

The tweet came the same night Eichenwald appeared on Fox News, arguing to Tucker Carlson that President Donald Trump had once been admitted to a mental hospital. The Post said this does not appear to be true. Afterward, Eichenwald sent two tweets to Carlson arguing that the intelligence community should be honored. Authorities think the strobe tweet was sent as revenge for those comments, the Post said. Several other Twitter attacks followed from different users.

The criminal complaint said Rivello used a “deadly weapon”—an electronic device, the animated GIF and his hands—to induce the seizure. That might be the first time anyone has defined an animated GIF as a weapon, the Post said.

Rivello’s defense attorneys, who were not named, sent a statement to the Dallas Morning News saying Rivello, a Marine veteran, immediately apologized and was seeking help from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Law professor Danielle Citron of the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law told the Post that Rivello is unlikely to have a First Amendment defense because the tweet had no expressive value. Lieberman, who is representing Eichenwald pro bono, analogized the tweet to sending anthrax through the mail.

Since the December seizure, Eichenwald has written that he has received more than 40 other animated GIFs with strobe effects. Rivello’s indictment was followed by more tweets critical of Eichenwald, including one that called Rivello “a political prisoner.” Montana white supremacist Richard Spencer said on Twitter that there was a legal defense fund for Rivello.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.