Not the cries of Jessica Valenti of death threats to her children, after she’s done with her personal authentic engagement for the morning because she has, you know, fans who need her to know what they’re supposed to hate. And not because Newsweek reporter Kurt Eichenwald has done anything to deserve appreciation for his flagrant intellectual dishonesty. Rather, can the mechanics of an internet medium serve as means of committing assault?
Maybe. It depends.
Having been deluged by the cries of those who want to elevate hateful words into the equivalent of a good beating, the type that breaks an eye socket or two, rational people are inclined to shrug off claims that social media has the potential to be used as means of assault. What happened to Eichenwald raises a very different problem:
The question arises in the recent discussion by journalist Kurt Eichenwald of the Twitter threats he has received from Trump supporters. After Newsweek published his story investigating the complicated relationships the Trump Organization holds with foreign governments and business interests, Eichenwald received numerous responses on Twitter, many of them not only critical but threatening. One stood out, leading Eichenwald to write a new article. The tweet (since deleted) referred to Eichenwald’s epilepsy and included an embedded video. When Eichenwald played the video, he writes, he instantly identified it—complete with flashing lights and images—as an epileptogenic, or seizure-triggering, video. He dropped his iPad as soon as he recognized the video’s characteristics.
There are a great many connections here that are assumed. Whether they are true and provable, who knows. But it raises a weird circumstance that could be possible, that some miscreant thought Eichenwald’s words so horrible (sound familiar?) as to warrant an effort to cause him an epileptic seizure.
This isn’t rick-rolling. Whether the video could trigger a seizure isn’t the point either. Nor does it matter that Eichenwald didn’t actually suffer the seizure, though he may have suffered iPad damage in the process of avoiding any potential harm. The point is that Twitter had the potential to be used as a delivery mechanism for harm. The point is that, if this piece of shit intended to harm someone whose only connection to him was via the twitters, he found a way to accomplish it.
Trump supporters have sent death threats, mockery, and anti-Semitic imagery to journalists asking questions about Donald Trump’s finances, taxes, charitable giving, and ties abroad. The First Amendment doesn’t apply to Twitter, a private company, but many of these disturbing tweets could be analogized to protected hate speech. (And “true threats” can nonetheless be prohibited under the First Amendment.) Nearly all of them probably violate Twitter’s own terms of service.
Oh, come on. You knew there would have to be a Trump connection to serve as a news hook. It is, of course, utterly irrelevant to the post, but never pass up an opportunity. As for the gratuitous “true threats” mention, at least she links to a decision, if not an explanation, that undermines her mention, as commonly misunderstood as the “fire in a crowded theater” trope.
In the case of the epilepsy triggering video, however, the person who trolled Kurt Eichenwald may have committed criminal assault.
Twitting a link to a video? Well, yeah.
Had this Twitter troll walked up to Eichenwald and pointed what appeared to be a loaded gun at the journalist, most would agree that the troll would be guilty of assault. Had the troll walked up to Eichenwald and surprised him with a tablet displaying the video, the result would likely be the same. After all, not all weapons are guns. It’s the same thing with the tweet—the distance does not change the analysis. For instance, the intentional hacking of a networked connected medical device, like an insulin pump, resulting in a person’s death would be criminal homicide even if the perpetrator were hundreds of miles away.
This may not be the clearest exposition, and makes some fairly obvious conflations, but the point is that the delivery mechanism, the distance, the means, does not change the elements of the offence.
Nor is this about Twitter, but applicable to any social medium, and more generally, any malicious use of the internet. Consider the use of internet hacking to interfere with an automobile, which can already be accomplished. Hackers start out trying to see if they can do it. But once they know they can, the next level is doing it purposefully. What happens if someone hacks your brakes at 70 miles per hour? Bad things.
Granted, assuming the twit sent to Eichenwald satisfied all the elements of an offense, it’s still a highly limited situation. It would only apply to someone who suffers from epilepsy, and even then, there is no certainty that a video will, in fact, do harm. No, epileptogenic videos are not the same as a gun, not in the likelihood or efficacy in causing serious physical injury or death.
But this is just the start of a problem. Imaginative malevolent actors will figure out a way to use social media, the internet, to do harm to others. No, not calling Brianna Wu mean names, but actual harm.
Despite the obvious fact that no one sick enough to want to cause actual harm to another person is going to pay attention to anything here, and realize that another person’s words, no matter how much they anger you, are not a justification for causing actual harm, just don’t do it. Don’t do it because it’s sick. Don’t do it because it is you, not the person who wrote the words that made you sad, who is the biggest loser. Don’t do it because it will give rise to ever-increasing cries of the evils of the internet and how it must be regulated and controlled and criminalized, for the epileptic children.
Yes, even Twitter can be used to commit an assault, regardless of whether Eichenwald was a victim. No, it doesn’t have to be that way if you choose not to commit a crime using twitter. Just don’t do it.