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Dallas Writer Kurt Eichenwald Turns to the Courts to Get Twitter to Identify a User Who Sent a Seizure-Inducing Tweet

Our brave new world gets braver and newer.

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Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Dallas-based Newsweek and Vanity Fair reporter Kurt Eichenwald is a controversial guy in some circles. He’s been one of the more crusading reporters on a number of the issues involving Donald Trump—days before the election, he reported perhaps the most comprehensive look at the president-elect’s ties to Russia—and he’s combined straight, well-documented reportage with snarky commentary on Twitter and at least one attempt at satire that’s indistinguishable from “fake news.” Before the election, Eichenwald was an important reporter—Steven Soderbergh adapted his book The Informant into a film starring Matt Damon, and Eichenwald was nominated for a Pulitzer in 2000—but he wasn’t exactly a public-facing media figure until recently.

Eichenwald recently appeared on Fox News to debate Tucker Carlson, and after that segment—in which he and Carlson had a heated conversation for ten minutes—Eichenwald says a user that goes by @jew_goldstein sent him an animated GIF intended to induce a seizure. (Eichenwald has documented his life with epilepsy in his work for decades.) It wasn’t the first time this had happened—in October, Eichenwald wrote that another Trump supporter had sent him a similar GIF—but it was, Eichenwald says, the first time that it worked.

Dr. Theresa Eichenwald, the reporter’s wife of 26 years who has lived with his epilepsy since they started dating, said she first realized something was wrong when her husband called out to her.

“I heard him from the other room,” she told The Daily Beast. “I came in, and he was in his chair, slightly turned away from the flashing computer screen. He was incoherent.

“I knew right away what was going on. I quickly got the image off the screen. He did not have a grand mal seizure,” she added, citing the most serious form of epileptic seizure, which is characterized by severe muscle contractions and loss of consciousness, and can result in death. “He had a localized seizure. All you can do is make sure the person is safe and wait it out and tell him he’s OK. My response was more anger than anything else.”

Eichenwald’s wife tweeted to the account that sent the image, “This is his wife, you caused a seizure. I have your information and have called the police to report the assault.” (Carlson’s Daily Caller website, meanwhile, questions whether Eichenwald actually called the police that night.) Regardless of whether a police report exists, though, Eichenwald definitely filed legal paperwork in a Dallas court to push Twitter to identify the person who sent the tweet.

The court ordered Twitter to give a deposition and to preserve all logs of the user, and Twitter indicated that it will comply with Eichenwald to help him identify the person who sent the seizure-inducing tweet.

  Rule 202 Order_signed 12.19.16_copy by Kurt Eichenwald on Scribd

All of this recalls the real questions and concerns as we explore the brave new world of Twitter, social media, and online privacy—none of which is exactly new, but all of which has taken on a sharper tenor over the past several months. Twitter, particularly, is in a unique spot here for the access it provides to anyone with an account. Facebook creates barriers for communicating with someone you don’t know; Twitter has multiple methods of sending those messages. It’s been a long-simmering problem for the service, wherein users—particularly women—have for years dealt with harassment, threats, and violent imagery. That Eichenwald’s condition puts him in the relatively extraordinary position of being at direct physical risk from the wrong kind of tweet is a new frontier on harassment—but it’s a difference of scope, not substance, as anyone who’s received hundreds or thousands of abusive tweets for offenses such as, say, starring in a reboot of Ghostbusters or pointing out sexist tropes in video games can attest.

Twitter, as a company, is in a challenging position. It’s hard to believe that it wants the service to be used for harassment—Milo Yannapolis, the self-identified “alt-right” leader who led the racist campaign against Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones, was permanently banned from the service in July, and the company’s compliance with the Eichenwald lawsuit suggests that its leaders have some moral compass guiding their decision-making. But Twitter has also faced criticism for being too slow to implement changes that might stop harassment on the service.

It’s a challenge on a few fronts. Anonymity on Twitter is necessary for a certain kind of community organizing that the company is proud of—such as its role in facilitating things like the Arab Spring—but that same anonymity makes it easy to register an account and send seizure-inducing images to a reporter you disagree with. There’s also the bottom line for Twitter; it has to keep growing (as all tech companies are expected to do) and you don’t grow by making it harder for people to use your service, or by offering them less opportunity to interact with the famous users that are much of Twitter’s selling point.

What the solution to all of this ends up being is an open question. (Maybe there won’t be one.) There are good ideas out there—here’s one from a user who suggests allowing users to self-verify with a bank card or phone number, and then allowing users to see tweets only from verified accounts, and another user that suggests the idea of community “rating” of Twitter accounts to weed out low-value users. Perhaps now that the service has been used even more directly to attempt to physically hurt someone, the company will consider a holistic approach to dealing with harassment. It does seem like the time is right.

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  • Shannon F

    This is insane and horrifying.

    • Chris Bray

      It is indeed insane and horrifying that we are now pretending it’s possible to be physically attacked on Twitter by a weaponized assault tweet. The consumer Internet is twenty years old — how many people have been assaulted on social media? A very dangerous road to take, if we’re now claiming that speech acts can be a physical attack. He sent me a picture — it’s ASSAULT! Think through the implications of that amazing claim.

      • José

        So what exactly are you saying? That Eichenwald doesn’t actually have epilepsy? That someone didn’t really send him a tweet that included a flashing graphic that was designed for inducing a fit? Or that he didn’t actually experience a seizure? What evidence do you have for your assertion, and why are you so afraid of asking for these questions to be addressed in an open legal process?

        The First Amendment is over 200 years old, and we have quite a body of thought concerning freedom of speech and what restrictions are appropriate. Some of us consider ourselves advocates of First Amendment rights and yet we still accept laws against libel and perjury. We are also brave enough to entertain the question of intentionally attacking someone physically through imagery.

        • Chris Bray

          Where to begin? If Eichenwald is medically traumatized by any flashing image on a screen, he would be in the hospital every time he went on the Internet, and every time an ambulance or fire truck drove by with lights flashing. It’s simply not true that all epileptics instantly seize at the moment they see any flashing light.

          “Photosensitive epilepsy is more common in children and adolescents, especially those with generalized epilepsy, and a type known as juvenile myoclonic epilepsy. It becomes less frequent with age, with relatively few cases in the mid twenties.”

          http://www.epilepsy.com/learn/triggers-seizures/photosensitivity-and-seizures

          Then consider the fact that his prior postings on the topic prove that he had already disabled autoplay on Twitter, meaning that the terrifying assault GIF in question wouldn’t have had the power to leap off the screen and attack him. Then there’s the fact that he filed a police complaint several days after the supposed incident, and only after news reports revealed there was no police report, but the “this is his wife” tweet claimed that the police had been notified on the night of the “attack.”

          What evidence do you have that he experienced a seizure? You’ve seen his medical records? This is hysteria and performance art. You’re talking about a person who claimed on national television to have secret messages from the CIA, and who said that he lied on Twitter about Donald Trump being a psychiatric inpatient because he meant it as a “signal to a source.”

          http://www.businessinsider.com/kurt-eichenwald-trump-mental-hospital-tweet-2016-12

          A little skepticism may be merited, yeah?

          • José

            “It’s simply not true that ALL epileptics instantly seize at the moment they see ANY flashing light.”

            “All”. “Any”. Not to mention “every” in the prior sentence. Now why would someone insinuate such absolutes into an account when they weren’t there in the first place? Friend, maybe a child will be thrown off by a misrepresentation of what was reported but some of us grown ups are a little more aware. I certainly hope and expect that the judicial process will be skeptical. I also hope and expect that it will pursue justice according to the law whereas, as far as I can tell, you are interested only in shutting down the questions before they start. Truth welcomes the light; deceit fears it.

          • Chris Bray

            That’s….very dramatic.

          • Sky Mirror

            So if you go to a restaurant and are served food that has been knowingly contaminated with certain ‘biological’ substances by a vindictive waitperson and you become ill as a result, the fault lies with you for eating the food?

          • Chris Bray

            Your comment made me COLLAPSE! Ohhh, why did you ASSAULT me!?!?!? I’m calling the POLICE!

          • Voulke

            That would be poisoning — entirely different.

      • BrockLynn

        IT’S CALLED GASLIGHTING. THE COWARDS USE PSYCHOLOGICAL WARFARE. I have a neighbor who slams the back door, which is where my front door is. I asked him, nicely, to please not do this, because it upsets me. He continues to do it. Now, all he has to do is open the door and my insides react, terribly. I did call the police, and I know they will come out to talk to him. Also, if you can apply it, think of yourself as going to a zoo. Observe the animals in the cages. You don’t take their behavior, personally. Therefore don’t take the coward’s behavior, personally. Perhaps it will take practice, for me.

        • Chris Bray

          Gaslighting is where one person tweets a picture, and then another person staggers around screaming about assault and calling the police. It’s gaslighting to pretend that modest provocations are devastating, that minor transgression merits major retribution. Gaslighting would be, for example, a neighbor screaming and howling merely because you close your back door. In the dictionary, “gaslighting” should be illustrated by a photograph of Kurt Eichenwald.

  • Chris Bray

    The first principle for political action: Remember that the rules you make today apply to you tomorrow. If you’re prepared to support the claim that a writer on the left has been “assaulted” by a tweet from a commenter on the right, be prepared for the day when Breitbart correspondents file police reports saying they’ve been “assaulted” by Internet commenters on the left.

    “Assault GIFs” — tread lightly.

  • Lars Ericson

    Milo is not the “self identified” alt-right leader. This is fake news. By the way, if you go to the gif menu on Twitter and search for “strobe” you’ll get plenty of Twitter approved, epilepsy-inducing gifs to choose from. This is so stupid, like the left.

    • José

      Why do you suppose that someone specifically sent such a graphic to Eichenwald? Regardless of whether it was legal or whether Twitter allowed it. Regardless of whether you consider it stupid to complain. Regardless of whether pressing charges is going to lead us down a slippery slope to a tyranny of liberal correctness. Why did someone do that in the first place? Just asking.

      • Voulke

        So, regardless of all the important details, you mean.

  • BrockLynn

    Those bad guys are everywhere. You will find them in your environment, eventually, especially if you are a ———————— (fill in the blank with any and all sensitivities). BULLYING IS FOR COWARDS, AND THEY ARE WINNING THE FIGHT.

  • BrockLynn

    While doing some research on bullying on the internet, today…I found the following:

    “Trying to trigger a medical condition, such as using flash photography to try to trigger a seizure in an epileptic person, or showing graphic content to someone who has PTSD or a phobia”

  • adam Campos

    God damn I love this magazine!