On December 16, 2016, Vanity Fair contributing editor Kurt Eichenwald had just done one of the weirdest interviews of the year with Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson — with props no less — when he received a tweet from a user named @Jew_Goldstein.
It consisted of a single animated GIF with a rapidly flashing strobe effect. The text on the image read “YOU DESERVE A SEIZURE FOR YOUR POSTS.” The very next tweet from Eichenwald’s account, purportedly sent by his wife, informed @Jew_Goldstein that he “caused a seizure” and that the incident would be reported to the police.
The use of the strobe effect was no accident. Eichenwald is known to suffer from epilepsy, a “chronic disorder” marked by “recurrent, unprovoked seizures.” According to the Epilepsy Foundation, approximately 3% of people with epilepsy have seizures triggered by photosensitivity. Eichenwald had made it clear to people that he is part of that 3%, which is why he has been targeted by trolls with flashing images before.
Shortly thereafter, the Twitter account for @Jew_Goldstein was suspended for targeted harassment, but not before dozens of other racist trolls joined in the game, sending seizure-inducing GIFs and mocking Eichenwald’s condition. After he recovered, Eichenwald lawyered up, initially demanding Twitter release the user information for @Jew_Goldstein in order to proceed with a civil suit.
However, today, it appears that will now be unnecessary. After a three month investigation, the FBI arrested 29-year-old Marylander and ex-Marine John Rayne Rivello in connection with the assault on Eichenwald. According to a press release by the Department of Justice, Rivello was charged with cyberstalking. Most disturbingly, the press release included these details:
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.
In other words, this is all evidence that speaks to Rivello’s criminal (not to mention sinister) intent. Rivello allegedly made statements revealing that he knew of Eichenwald’s condition, that he knew sending the GIF in question was likely to cause a seizure, and that a seizure could result in Eichenwald’s death. He appears to have found that quite amusing, since his iCloud had a screenshot of a fake obituary for Eichenwald.
Of course, this being the Internet, there are plenty of terrible people who believe Rivello’s behavior was perfectly innocent. The odious Ethan Ralph of The Ralph Retort — himself no stranger to law enforcement — quoted Eichenwald’s attorney as stating that sending a flashing image to a person with epilepsy was akin to “sending a bomb in the mail or sending an envelope filled with Anthrax spores.”
“Yes, sending a gif on Twitter is no different that sending someone an envelope filled to the brim with deadly Anthrax. Who could argue with this flawless logic?” asked Ralph sarcastically.
The thing is, Eichenwald’s attorney has a bit of a point. Rivello knew that Eichenwald suffered from a particular condition aggravated by seeing bright, flashing images. He hoped it would cause Eichenwald harm in the form of a seizure — perhaps one resulting in death. I would consider this no different than giving shrimp to a person with a severe shellfish allergy in hopes that they will go into anaphylactic shock. Or putting a powerful magnet near a person with a pacemaker.
Even though most people would find shellfish and magnets harmless, there are some people with particular vulnerabilities to these otherwise mundane objects, and these vulnerabilities can prove quite deadly. There are a million other examples of rare conditions — both physical and psychological — that can be triggered by everyday occurrences. It’s just that most people aren’t horrible enough to exploit these vulnerabilities for fun.
But again, to some, Rivello did nothing wrong — to borrow a phrase from the alt-right. In fact, Chuck Johnson’s noxious bounty-hunting website WeSearchr is already on the case with a fundraising plea on behalf of “Jew Goldstein.” Started by a woman named Becky Barnes, the fundraiser states that “‘journalist’ Kurt Eichenwald” — love the use of scare quotes — “had the FBI arrest ‘Ari Goldstein’ (‘Jew Goldstein’, real name John Rivello, an ex-Marine with PTSD) for replying to a tweet with a flashing gif.”
Barnes continued her sob story, claiming that Rivello “donated to an epilepsy charity as a gesture of goodwill and as an apology to Kurt.” Well, I guess that makes everything all better doesn’t it? Even more comical is Barnes’ assertion that, should this go to trial, a guilty verdict could “redefine ‘trolling’ and what it means to troll online,” as if that’s the most pressing issue facing people today. She continued, writing that Rivello “can’t go to prison for tweeting a gif at Eichenwald.”
Here is Becky Barnes pleading with Twitter users to aid in Rivello’s legal defense:
She claims to have known Rivello for “over a year” and wrote that she “was in that dm [direct message] group the Feds raided.” In another tweet in the same thread she further claimed that she has his “personal contact info” and will “be talking either to him or his lawyers as soon as he’s released from FBI custody”:
In a reply to white nationalist leader Richard Spencer, who unsurprisingly took interest in the case, Barnes reiterated that she is “a friend of JR’s” and that she “just set up a bounty with Wesearchr to get approved”:
There were other Nazi fans rallying to Rivello’s defense, including Edward Teach, who called Eichenwald a “disgusting Jew” who “is trying to ruin a man’s life for sending him a gif” — again, downplaying the very serious nature of Rivello’s actions:
Vendatta Vimiera proclaimed that “Jew Goldstein is innocent” and “Jew Goldstein did nothing wrong.” Toying with the fact that Rivello chose the name @Jew_Goldstein, Vimiera jokingly called Eichenwald an “antisemite” [sic]:
Tim Gionet, also known as “Baked Alaska,” declared that “Kurt Eichenwald isn’t going to put a man in prison for a tweet”:
Someone who calls himself MicroMagicMilkWand also played dumb, baselessly accusing people like Teen Vogue‘s Lauren Duca of making death threats (for which he offered no evidence) and implying that Rivello was arrested for engaging in “hyperbole” or “saying ironic things on Twitter,” which, of course, is false:
Gregory Montfort likewise pretended that sending a strobe light GIF to a man with epilepsy is a matter of — wait for it — free speech:
Someone who calls herself Tinker Bell (weird) called Rivello a “hero” and put Eichenwald’s name in the triple parentheses — Nazi code for Jew — which is both racist and stupid since Eichenwald isn’t even Jewish:
Titus Flavius informed “Kike Eichenwald” that he hasn’t “seen us pissed off before”:
Someone going by the handle @Suziechka called Eichenwald a “pedophile Jew” who fakes his seizures:
@genosavior2 also targeted Eichenwald because of the rumor that he’s secretly Jewish:
Someone calling himself Jew Goldstein –I’m not even sure whose picture they stole — asked if they could still send Eichenwald “oven gifs”:
With all the screeching over Rivello having done “nothing wrong” and this being a “free speech” issue, it makes one wonder why these alt-right trolls are so concerned over one anti-Semite who was arrested for doing something stupid and criminal. But in a way it makes sense.
Shitposting is what these folks do, and as Becky Barnes said, this could “redefine ‘trolling’ and what it means to troll online.” After all, Rivello stands to face tangible consequences for his disturbing actions. For many on the alt-right, that could be a worrisome trend indeed.