Twitter.
Photograph by Bloomberg — Getty Images
By Mathew Ingram
December 21, 2016

In what appears to be the first case of its kind, Twitter has agreed to turn over information about a user after the unknown individual sent a tweet that triggered an epileptic seizure. The recipient of the tweet, Newsweek reporter Kurt Eichenwald, filed a claim in a Dallas court asking for information to prepare for a possible assault lawsuit against the user.

The tweet, which came from an account named Jew Goldstein, appeared to be a response to Eichenwald’s critical reporting on Donald Trump, and said “you deserve a seizure,” along with a flashing animated image of the type that can cause seizures in those with epilepsy. The user’s account has since been suspended.

Eichenwald has talked about his epilepsy a number of times, including in an article he wrote responding to allegations from Trump supporters that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was having small seizures during the campaign.

His epilepsy also became an issue in relation to a story he was involved with that caused some controversy, after it was revealed that he made payments out of his personal account to an individual involved in a child-pornography ring he was reporting on. Eichenwald blamed memory problems caused by his epilepsy.

This isn’t the first time the Newsweek and Vanity Fair writer has received a tweet designed to cause a seizure—he got one in October as well, with a video clip that almost triggered a seizure. Eichenwald said he dropped his iPad quickly enough after seeing it that he didn’t suffer one at that time.

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“We have descended as a nation to the point that people think it’s justified to cause severe harm to someone simply because of politics,” Eichenwald told Newsweek after the latest incident. “I have decided to pursue this case so that those online who believe they can do whatever they want, even inflict serious medical damage on others, under the cloak of anonymity will learn that they are not beyond the reach of the law.”

Many things can trigger seizures for those with epilepsy, including certain foods, a lack of sleep, alcohol, and stress. A small proportion of people have what is called “photo-sensitive epilepsy,” and can experience seizures—in some cases severe ones—merely by looking at strobe-style images. Eichenwald said he was bedridden for 24 hours after the tweet.

Last year, Twitter had to remove two looping videos from its Vine video platform after they reportedly triggered epileptic seizures in some users. The videos were designed to market Twitter’s Discover Music campaign, and had flashing lights and strobe-style graphics.

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Eichenwald has filed a civil suit in an attempt to identify the individual who sent the latest tweet, and has also filed a criminal complaint with the Dallas Police Department, alleging an assault. Twitter agreed to “expedited relief,” meaning it did not contest the demand for information about the user. A Twitter spokesman said the company had no comment on the case.

Although Twitter often fights to protect the privacy rights of its users when asked to identify them, it does comply with law enforcement requests for a variety of reasons, including when there are threats of violence against a specific person. It publishes an annual report breaking down the number of times it has been asked for such info, as other social networks do.

Twitter has also been criticized for not doing enough to curb abuse and harassment on the network, especially abuse directed at women and people of color. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has said the company is trying to get better at doing this, and has updated its abuse-reporting procedures.

Once Eichenwald gets the details of the account that sent the seizure-inducing tweet, he could file a suit asking any Internet service providers and telecom companies involved to provide IP addresses or other identifying information about the individual responsible, and could then proceed with an assault case against him or her.

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