Using the Internet to Physically Harm

People with epilepsy were singled out in an online assault.

by / April 16, 2008

Near the end of March an historic first took place: people were deliberately physically harmed through the Internet. In what sounds like an episode of the Outer Limits, unknown people maliciously posted JavaScript images and animations designed to trigger seizures in people with photosensitive epilepsy to the message boards of the Epilepsy Foundation's Web site.

This is not a first to be proud of.

This was not your typical Web site hack. People were the target, not the information contained on the site. The bright colored, flashing animations caused people to freeze, get migraines or have full-on seizures. But hack is a misnomer. The people who carried out this attack can not be called hackers because there was little if any computer skill involved. Practically anyone can go to a message board and upload an image. Coordination, perhaps. Skill, not really.

For the most part people condemned the act as heinous -- nothing more than a cheap shot. Yet some people found it funny. Many people left the comment LULZ -- a slang term meaning "laugher at another's expense," or "just for the hell of it." Those who find humor in cruelty would probably go around tripping elderly people for a laugh -- but what if it was their grandmother?

One person suggested that people with epilepsy should just not use computers. What a great idea. Perhaps they could go back to strictly snail mail and phones. They don't need jobs --who uses computers at work? Shutting people away from society is not an option.

The Internet is no longer just an encyclopedia replacement. Web 2.0 advancements have allowed us all to connect and share our lives online. The Epilepsy Foundation's forums are a perfect example of such connections. These forums, and the like, give people anonymity and the freedom to ask the questions they might be otherwise scared to ask since epilepsy still carries with it the stigma of thousands of years of misunderstanding. The forums give millions of people a chance to discuss questions about the disorder, medication options, different ways of controlling seizures and how to explain Epilepsy to friends and family. Not to mention the emotional support one gains by talking to people in similar situations.

So why attack it?

If someone attacked a political site because they disagreed with the position that would be one thing (it would still be wrong, but at least there would be a reason). What was the purpose of attacking a non-profit site and those seeking help? Does some group have something against people with epilepsy? Most likely not. This is not the dark ages. People with epilepsy are no longer believed to be demon possessed. But they were a vulnerable target. Like the many snickering LULZ comments, this was probably just some stupid prank meant to cause a media stir. Maybe they did it for kicks, to see if they could.

Hopefully all the attention from this attack will create better understanding of epilepsy. But it looks likes times have changed and we must not only worry about online scammers stealing identities, or emptying bank accounts -- we have to worry about assault.

Gina M. Scott Writer