The dark side of internet trolling: cyber flashing and epilepsy trolling explained

Trolling is a trivial term that often evokes images of lonely and bored people with nothing better to do than take to the internet (anonymously) and bring the world down. Although it sounds relatively harmless, trolling can have serious effects that are far-reaching and sometimes fatal.

The UK’s Online Safety Act recently released new regulations that criminalize online activity and aim to bring threat actors to justice.

Those who commit acts of cyber flashing, epilepsy trolling, soliciting revenge porn, and more could now face up to five years imprisonment.

These activities are often overlooked – perhaps because they could be misconstrued as a bad joke – but have devastating consequences for victims.

Now, these activities have been dubbed a criminal offense in the UK, and the country pioneered the criminalization of epilepsy trolling.

But what are these activities, and how do they affect the victims of these malicious acts?

What is epilepsy trolling?

Epilepsy trolling is the act of using moving images such as GIFs and other media that provoke seizures in people with photosensitive epilepsy.

This is often performed to humiliate, cause harm, and demoralize individuals with the condition.

In May 2020, the Epilepsy Society suffered a major cyberattack in which internet trolls took to Twitter (now X) to post hundreds of harmful flashing images on the platform to trigger seizures.

Although it might seem uncommon, the Epilepsy Society has received malicious tweets in recent years, according to written evidence submitted by the organization.

On the 13th of May 2020, the Epilepsy Society’s Twitter (X) account experienced a cyberattack that lasted 48 hours.

Followers were subjected to over 200 posts that contained flashing GIFs and posts of a violent and pornographic nature.

Many individuals who follow the account were sent flashing GIFs via direct messages.

These direct messages could have been sent to anyone within the Epilepsy Society’s following of 27,000.

From this, we can see that epilepsy trolling has profound effects on its victims and can cause serious harm.

“Epileptic seizures are not benign events” as they pose significant risks to the lives of those suffering from the condition.

These seizures can cause physical injuries, like concussions, and can be fatal in certain circumstances.

Zach’s law

A recent law known as Zach’s law, included in the Online Safety Act, recognizes trying to purposefully trigger a seizure in someone with epilepsy as a criminal offense.

This occurred after Zach, who has epilepsy and cerebral palsy, raised money for the Epilepsy Society by walking 2.6K.

Zach’s mother posted a video of his progress to Twitter (X), which was then bombarded with media used to trigger an epileptic seizure.

The young boy was only eight at the time of the attack and, luckily, came out of the ordeal unscathed.

However, others reported suffering the effects of this media, and several people, including a 25-year-old man, suffered a seizure as a result of epilepsy trolling, according to the evidence provided by the Epilepsy Society.

The unnamed man was directed to the organization by friends who thought he would benefit from further support, as he had been newly diagnosed with epilepsy.

Instead of finding peer support, he was “confronted with a flashing image causing him a serious tonic-clonic seizure. He bit through his tongue and has been psychologically traumatized” by the event.

Stories like these shed light on these malicious and dangerous activities that may be overlooked or even regarded as a joke.

Yet, they have terrifying consequences for victims and are often conducted with the intent to humiliate and cause harm to others.

Alongside epilepsy trolling, different activities have also been criminalized in the UK, one of which is cyber flashing.

What is cyber flashing?

Cyber flashing is the act of sending nonconsensual intimate imagery (NCII), like nude photos or images of genitalia, to an individual.

Reportedly, 76% of females aged from 12 to 18 have been victims of cyber flashing, according to 2020 research by Professor Jessica Ringrose.

Meaning minors are receiving unsolicited sexual images of threat actors, often with the intent to receive sexual gratification, humiliate the victim, or cause distress.

These acts often occur on social media, dating apps, and via data-sharing devices such as Bluetooth and Airdrop.

Much like sexual assaults in the Metaverse and nonconsensual deepfake pornography, these encounters can have real-life effects on victims.

People have reported feeling humiliated, angry, and frightened by the images that pop up on their devices, and according to the Guardian, this isn’t a unique crime.

Almost 48% of 18-24-year-olds in the UK have received unsolicited sexual images on dating apps such as Bumble.

Almost half of young people have experienced this type of cybercrime on the dating app.

Demonstrating just how prevalent cyber flashing can be.

But it’s not just casual daters who have been affected by cyber flashing – individuals using public transport should also beware.

“Akin to a real-life flashing”

A journalist from The Guardian, Sophie Gallagher, reported her experience with cyber flashing while traveling on the London Underground in the UK.

Gallagher was sent more than 100 unsolicited images of erect genitalia via Apple Airdrop.

The perpetrator would have had to have been close, as this feature only works if the iPhone is within 10 meters.

Which left the reporter's mind reeling with possible scenarios of what could happen once she exited the tube.

What makes this situation worse is that a preview of the image will appear on your device before you accept the Airdrop, making cyber flashing inescapable.

The consequences of this cyber flashing were similar to those of a real-life flashing, leaving the journalist feeling vulnerable, angry, and humiliated.

A range of malicious activities has been criminalized in the recent update of the Online Safety Act.

Revenge porn and fake news, alongside cyber flashing and epilepsy trolling, have been added to the list of criminal cyber activities.

This feels like a productive step towards securing the cyber landscape, but will it be enough to deter malicious activity online?

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