HOUSTON — Hackers sent videos and images of flashing strobe lights to thousands of Twitter followers of the Epilepsy Foundation last month in a mass cyberattack that apparently sought to trigger seizures in those with epilepsy, the foundation said Monday.

The series of online attacks was particularly reprehensible, it said in a statement, because it took place during National Epilepsy Awareness Month.

“These attacks are no different than a person carrying a strobe light into a convention of people with epilepsy and seizures, with the intention of inducing seizures and thereby causing significant harm to the participants,” said Allison Nichol, director of legal advocacy for the nonprofit foundation, which finances epilepsy research and connects people to treatment and support.

The foundation reported 30 such attacks in the first week of November, and said it had filed complaints with law enforcement authorities, including with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maryland, where the group’s headquarters are. It was unclear how many people clicked on the videos and animated images known as GIFs.

Cyberattacks intended to trigger harmful seizures in those with epilepsy have become more common in recent years, particularly after a Texas author was targeted in 2016.

In that attack, John Rayne Rivello, a Marine Corps veteran from Maryland, was accused of using Twitter to send a GIF with a blinding strobe light to an epileptic author, Kurt Eichenwald, who had written critically about Donald Trump and his supporters during the 2016 presidential campaign.


Rivello had been scheduled to plead guilty Monday to a charge of aggravated assault in the case, which was filed in Dallas and became a legal testing ground for the limits of free speech and criminal assault in cases of cyberattack.

The hearing, however, was postponed until January. A lawyer for Rivello, Matthew Alford, did not respond to a request for comment.

Two months before the Twitter attack, Eichenwald, who was a reporter for The New York Times from 1986 to 2006, had written an opinion piece in Newsweek headlined “How Donald Trump Supporters Attack Journalists.” In the column he described death threats he had received because he had written critically about Trump.

The threats, Eichenwald wrote, were “sometimes just general invocations that I should die, sometimes more specific threats that I should be shot or ‘lynched,’ as one Trump fan wrote.” He added, “One Trump fan mentioned he knew which schools my children attended, and correctly named them.”

In December 2016, after publication of the Newsweek piece, Eichenwald told investigators that he had stepped into his home office one evening and clicked on a message from someone identified as @jew_goldstein. It contained a strobe light GIF and a declaration in capital letters: “You deserve a seizure for your posts.”

Looking at the strobe caused an immediate seizure that lasted about eight minutes, court documents showed.


“He slumped over in his chair,” said Steven Lieberman, Eichenwald’s lawyer. “He was unresponsive and he probably would have died but for the fact that his wife heard a noise — she’s a physician — and she pulled him away from the screen and got him onto the floor.”

Eichenwald’s wife, Theresa, called 911 and took a picture of the strobing light on his computer with her cellphone. “This is his wife, you caused a seizure,” she replied to the Twitter account. “I have your information and have called the police to report the assault.”

Investigators found several digital clues they said led them to Rivello, including a message he had sent to other Twitter users that read, “I hope this sends him into a seizure.” They also found a screenshot on Rivello’s iCloud account showing Eichenwald’s Wikipedia page with a fake date of death as well as a screenshot of a list of epilepsy seizure triggers that had been copied from an epilepsy information website.

The faked Wikipedia page also included anti-Semitic references, according to court documents, and the Twitter handle @jew_goldstein, with the name Ari Goldstein, was traced to Rivello.

Eichenwald, 58, has written that he is Episcopalian with a Jewish father.

Rivello, 32, who lived in Salisbury, Maryland, was arrested in 2017 and charged in federal court with cyberstalking. Federal prosecutors dropped the charge that year, but the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office proceeded with a prosecution on state charges.


Eichenwald still suffers from the seizure, both physically and emotionally, and continues to receive similar cyberattacks, his lawyer said.

“For a long time he has been unable to hold his grandchild for fear that his lack of control over his limbs will potentially cause an injury to the child,” he said.

Eichenwald filed a lawsuit against Rivello in federal court in Maryland for battery and other claims. The defense moved to dismiss it, arguing in part that the battery claim could not be supported because Eichenwald did not claim that any physical contact had occurred.

But Chief Judge James K. Bredar of the U.S. District Court in the District of Maryland allowed the lawsuit to proceed, writing that the “novelty of the mechanism by which the harm was achieved” did not make the alleged actions any less of a wrongful act.