e-pistols: Physical Aggressions via the Web

Ignazio Lago, e-pistole, 2018 (ink on paper)

 

Long Live the New Flesh!
(D. Cronenberg, Videodrome, 1982)

Tutorials on how to achieve self-strangulation are relatively common on the Web, even on some popular video channels. This practice is often referred to as a game or a challenge, and has been given different names. ‘Blackout’ is among the most repeated ones. In the US, the practice of controlling one’s own asphyxiation, while recording it with a camera to then share the images, has already caused the death of many a teenager, who perhaps were not fully aware of the potential danger. Even in Italy, a few deaths have occurred. The first one in Tivoli, and then just a few months ago in Milan.

Even more extensive is the list of intentional suicides committed by people who suffered very heavy and prolonged forms of blackmail, threats and harassment through the web, in particular through social networks and messaging applications. Cyberstalking and cyberbullying are the neologisms describing these phenomena. Laws were also implemented in order to deal with these types of violence.

But putting aside the issues of privacy and control, the behavioral pressure deliberately operated by, and through, social media, cybersecurity, computer wars and the power of “internet giants” – all of which have been tackled, in Italy, through an excellent research work by the organization Ippolita –, let us get to the heart of the matter.

Inducing emulation, cyberstalking and cyberbullying all still remain within a certain limit. These actions influence the victim’s psyche by deceiving its sentinels with enticement, by taking advantage of a weak and still-developing safeguard, by taking advantage of their fragility or injuring their emotions, by wearing their self-esteem and humiliating their scales of values. But the limit was crossed with the cyber attack on the website of the nonprofit Epilepsy Foundation of America, which runs a forum for people affected with various neurophysiological disorders. When some of them clicked on one of the hundreds of messages embedded with flashing animated gifs that the attackers posted using a script, they did not find offending messages, but they were actually seized by serious migraine or convulsions. For the first time, the manifest intention of causing physical harm using a computer as a weapon reached its goal and a deliberate aggressive action conducted via the web directly affected not just the victim’s mind, but the victim’s body.
It was a somewhat epochal passage, which can be perceived as a shortening of the distance between virtuality and matter, a shortcut leading straight to the human body. It happened in March 2008: the path to physical cyber-aggression was opened.

Photosensitive epilepsy may occur following prolonged exposure to monitors and flashing lights. The most typical symptoms include: visual fixation, stiffening of the limbs, anomalous head posture, hallucinations, sudden fainting and convulsions. A very rapid sequence of images, quickly swithcing from positive to negative, repeated in short cycles, with sudden chromatic inversions and swirling, flickering/flashing shapes can induce a migraine headaches or seizures in a sensitive subject. This kind of dangerous images can befound in movies, video games, cartoons and television shows. Or, they can be produced on purpose.

WARNING! The video below can induce seizures or interfere with the viewer’s health. DO NOT WATCH if you have a history of epilepsy.

Years before, the EFA had awarded Kurt Eichenwald – a well-known and controversial figure in the US press – for his 1987 article in which he publicly adressed his own epileptic status. Eichenwald had not been involved in any cyber aggression in 2008. But in December 2016, after opening a Twitter DM from his computer in his home in Dallas, the reporter suffered a serious epileptic fit. It was caused by a flashing GIF file embedded in the tweet. There were no doubts the act was deliberate. The text content explicitly said: “You deserve a seizure”.
This was not even the first aggression Eichenwald had experienced in the same way, as he later stated on Newsweek. Earlier that year, in October, he had managed to react in time, by quickly rotating the screen of his portable device.

Kurt Eichenwald, portrait by ArsTechnica

During the last presidential campaign, the journalist had publicly expressed some criticisms regarding the candidate who later won the elections. This was the reason behind the cyberattacks. After the success of this second cyber aggression, Eichenwald’s Twitter profile was flooded with countless epileptogenic attacks launched by several different accounts. It was the birth act of cybersquadrism: a physical group aggression via the Internet, carried out by targeting specific individuals rather than unknown or occasional people.

The author of the attack made significant efforts to keep his Twitter account untraceable. He posed under the name Ari Goldstein and used the handle @jew_goldsteinhad, as if to suggest some kind of conspiracy. But the investigations conducted by the FBI which, at least on this occasion, were carried out with Twitter’s full cooperation, identified the real sender of the criminal message as John Rayne Rivello, 29, of Salisbury, Md., a Marine veteran. An open supporter of the current president. Arrested in March 2017, Rivello was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. It was probably the first time that a computer file was called a “deadly weapon” in court.

The new relationship between man and the electronic machine, which emerged during the shift from personal computers to smartphones, has resulted in an unconditional adherence to the phenomenon of interconnectivity. But it has also performed a deep maneuver, bringing the body closer and closer to the network; the forms of violence available in a hyper-connected world have evolved; online attackers have found their target in the soma — the corporeal body — as well as in the psyche.

F.lli Wachowski, Matrix, 1999

With the purpose of influencing the mind, our bodies have been restricted, disciplined, regulated and punished for centuries. Now, on the other hand, things seem to be heading in the opposite direction: bodies can be reached through the mind. From the most powerful instruments of social and mental conditioning, comes the subtle and astonishing possibility of inflicting pain and suffering to the flesh.

Will we ever expand this astounding potential? Will we someday take advantage of this wonderful opportunity by breaking through our obsolete epidermal barrier?
Will we be able to amplify the advantages deriving from our own carnal vulnerability, by finally inserting the electronic body into the human body?
Easy, folks! No need to push: we have subcutaneous devices for all purposes, and all budgets!

2 comments to e-pistols: Physical Aggressions via the Web

  1. Livio says:

    Molto inquietante…

  2. landolphus says:

    Gloria e vita alla Nuova Carne!

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