Newsweek writer Kurt Eichenwald has been on the receiving end of lots of hatred for his articles critical of Donald Trump. But after Eichenwald made a contentious appearance on Fox News last week, he says the attacks have taken a new turn — taking aim at his health.
Eichenwald told “Good Morning America” Tuesday that because of his criticisms of Donald Trump, supporters of the President-elect have tweeted images at him that have triggered his epileptic seizures.
“They knew what they were doing,” Eichenwald said, noting his openness about his epilepsy. The image — a flashing multicolored starburst with the text “You deserve a seizure for your posts” — left him bedridden and unable to drive.
On behalf of Eichenwald, a Texas judge has now issued a court order for Twitter to help find the account of the person who sent the seizure-inducing tweet. The account, @jew_goldstein, has been suspended.
Eichenwald told “Good Morning America” that the tweets represent a “sick and twisted” mentality in the country. “It is amazing to me that, simply because I am a political reporter, simply because I write about Donald Trump … people think they have the right and obligation to inflict potentially very serious injury.”
He promised to tweet updates of his legal battle, and tweeted a warning to his attackers: “We are getting your accounts canceled, one at a time. So if u want to stay on twitter, stop.”
But how does a tweet cause a seizure? Can it?
All sorts of stimuli can trigger seizures. Lack of sleep, sounds (like the voice of a TV show host), alcohol, foods, and hormonal changes are among the culprits for people with epilepsy. But about 3 percent have photosensitive epilepsy. For them, seizures can be caused flickering or flashing lights, the so-called “strobe effect.” A GIF can create this effect as different parts of the image repeatedly alternate rapidly between two bright but widely contrasting colors, such as red and green, black and white, or blue and yellow. Depending on the image, the fast-changing colors can simulate patterns of movement that can also induce seizures.
“The brightness or color doesn’t matter as much as the rapid change,” said Duke University Medical Center neurologist Dr. Rod Radtke. “The most prominent provocative frequency is at 15 hertz, or 15 times per second. Most public strobe lights — emergency lights on fire alarms [for example] — operate below that so that they don’t incapacitate people with epilepsy.”
In the brain, the flashing hits the retina, which stimulates the visual cortex in the occipital lobe, setting off a burst of abnormal electrical activity.
“We don’t know much more than that,” he added. “We’re not going to enter anybody’s brain to see why it happens or what’s different about their brains at the cellular level. Most of the time, once we find out, we just say, ‘Stay away from flashing lights,’ and that’s it.”
Seizures vary in type and intensity. They can look like brief moments of semiconciousness, or “spacing out.” Or they can be full-body convulsions with intense muscle contractions and loss of bodily functions. In between are seizures that consist of repeated purposeless movements or a brief fainting spell. In any case, the loss of physical control means that during an epileptic seizure, people can fall onto the floor or into walls or furniture — even onto subway tracks.
On the idea of tweeting or emailing flashing images to people known to have epilepsy, however, Radtke questioned the effectiveness of such an attack.
“I’m surprised that you can pull it off on the internet,” he said. “It’s doable, but if you’re looking at your phone, it would have to be awful dang bright to activate the retina.”
“Even if you’re looking at a computer screen, it usually takes several seconds of exposure to initiate a seizure,” Radtke said. “So you can avert your eyes and avoid it.”
Unfortunately Eichenwald may not be able to avoid it. Thanks to copycat Twitter users, he said, “Now my Twitter feed is dangerous.”