In December of 2016, Kurt Eichenwald, a prominent journalist who writes for Newsweek and Vanity Fair, received the following tweet along with a gif (animated picture).
As Eichenwald is publicly known to suffer from epilepsy, it’s reasonable to assume this act incorporated a blatant degree of malicious intent. After a lengthy three month investigation, the FBI arrested John Rivello of Salisbury, Maryland, the alleged sender of the tweet. Rivello has been charged in federal court with cyberstalking and could face a maximum prison sentence of up to 10 years.
Since the story was widely circulated, there have been additional reports of people sending strobes and flashing images that could potentially trigger seizures. Obviously, this goes well beyond hate speech designed to inflict emotional pain. This is an attempt to technologically inflict injury and possibly even death. It is clearly an attempt to “weaponize” social media. And by the way, this is hardly the first time an incident like this has happened. It’s just merely the first high profile one of its kind.
Roughly 1 in 26 Americans will develop epilepsy in their lifetime. An estimated 3 million Americans and 65 million people worldwide currently live with epilepsy. In two-thirds of patients diagnosed with epilepsy, the cause is unknown. This begs the larger question, do social media companies like Twitter and Facebook have a moral responsibility to “update” their legal disclaimers, or at the very least, shine a spotlight on the issue? Are these companies ethically obligated to promote awareness campaigns in the hopes of enhancing personal safety?
There’s a predictably sad truth when it comes to “untested situational dilemmas” in the realm of public safety. Bluntly speaking, large numbers of innocent people must die or be injured, before there is impetus for significant bureaucratic change. Being proactive is rarely the norm because it dismantles plausible deniability arguments, while at the same time, inviting speculative lawsuits and increased litigation.
The spectrum of hate speech is rapidly moving beyond the infliction of emotional suffering and mental distress. We, as a society, have entered a new era.
Sticks and stones may break my bones
but words will never hurt me.
The time has come to rethink that age-old adage. In the wireless age, it seems to apply less and less.
Take a look at where technology is trending. The prevalence of cell phones, wireless hyper-connectivity, the faster transmission of real-time information, cyber-bullying and the ability to penetrate and saturate the public with false content, hoax messaging, viral deception, phishing scams, emergency alerts, fake news, etc.
Back in 2011, I speculated about the prospect of an “artificially generated stampede.” A scenario where a significant number of individuals in a large, confined crowd (stadium, ballpark, etc.) receive deliberately false or panic-inducing information designed to spark a stampede. The concept is not terribly complex. It’s simply the modern, technological equivalent of shouting “fire” in a crowded theater.
Seems like it might be a good time for someone to explicitly share the TRUTH. Official emergency evacuation orders for large venues would NEVER be delivered via your personal cell phone. This represents the bare minimum of common sense, public safety information that government and private industry should be willing to divulge.
Since the majority of people don’t spend a lot of their free time speculating about outdated emergency evacuation protocol, maybe it would be wise, if someone, other than myself, stepped up to the plate. Considering the overwhelming evidence that government and private industry won’t go anywhere near this asymmetric cyber-threat (killing people without conventional weaponry), I would humbly suggest that an individual, perhaps a celebrity, journalist or popular musician, take action on humanity’s behalf. I’ve been giving it my best shot for several years. But nobody’s willing to discuss the matter. Go figure!