Violent emoji are starting to get people in trouble with the law


There are 17 different emojis for love ( ❤️ ), but none for hate. There is an emoji for peace ✌️, but none for war. There are many characters missing from the current emoji gallery, and with action verbs in short supply, I keep turning to the gun. I use it as a congratulatory phrase upon completing a difficult work-out. I use it to describe the show-stopping beauty of Fashion Week. And I use it for protest. Of course, all of this is now under reconsideration because last week a New York teenager was charged with threatening police with emoji violence because of his use of the gun:

Now you may be thinking, “It’s just a cartoon. The cop is smiling for god’s sake.” But the young man is now under $150,000 bail for terroristic threats, aggravated harassment and possession of a weapon and drugs, so clearly the NYPD is not smiling. The arrest came, as if on cue, after a Mashable article wondered if emoji could legally constitute a threat of actual violence.  Though the law governing intent to harm varies somewhat from state to state, it seems to boil down to this: Can the message be considered, by a reasonable person, to constitute an actionable threat? So the question then becomes, would a reasonable person consider this a threat:

It would be easy to dismiss emoji as mere comedy. Out of the over 800 emoji characters available on my phone,  almost all the vice is contained on a single tab, housing and . These are not the only characters that can be used for malice. My favorite thing about emoji is that characters don’t have a single definition; the limitations in the vocabulary can even push you into some surprising poetry. The  could be an innocuous fist bump or an act of aggression, depending on the situation. People are already using  for scandal beyond the original intent of its design. Emoji lend emotional context to otherwise expressionless texts, but they also require context in order to be read. When you strip them of their context your only option is to interpret them literally.

While nothing stunts the imagination more than taking an emoji at face value, there are times when the literal interpretation cannot be disregarded. In November, two teens were arrested for posting this on the anonymous social media app Yik Yak:

“Attention RHS students ”

Regardless of the intent of the students, a message like that requires a response. It’s the emoji equivalent of announcing loudly to the TSA agent at the airport that you have a bomb in your carry-on. And this is the disturbing reality: emoji do not exist in a void, they exist in our culture of violence. I can think of a half dozen colloquial expressions that are more than a little disturbing when written in emoji:

Killing time

Slay it

Hit it

Kill me now

I die

The violent metaphor is commonplace in American English, and emoji will adapt to fit the demand. Last summer, as I grappled with what exactly we were celebrating when we set off all those fireworks on Independence Day, I texted this to a friend:

It was an attempt to see if you could use the cartoons to express big, messy ideas like capitalism and institutional violence. Clearly the gun played an important part. Now I could have just as easily written a political Facebook rant, but emoji allows me to engage in a different way — not just because they are colorful but because they require work and consideration from the reader to determine meaning. Emoji are an interactive conversation even when the recipient doesn’t respond. As silly as the symbols can be, they really can be used to spark a discussion on just about anything.

As for the teen arrested in New York, the 17-year-old already has a fairly long rap sheet, according to the police. Remember this is the same police department that recently lost two officers murdered while sitting in their patrol car, only to learn later that the assailant had suggested his violent intent on social media hours earlier. In the wake of these murders and the killing of Eric Garner by police, it would be an understatement to say that tensions are high in New York. The teen’s Facebook page, where the status update containing the emoji was posted, was already being monitored by the police. So my question is this: Would the police have taken action if the Facebook update had said “fuck the police” instead of ?

At its best, emoji is not translated, it is interpreted. They rely on the lexicon of pop knowledge and on words themselves in order to derive specific meaning. It is possible that what we are looking at in New York is not necessarily a threat, but an issue of free speech. The Supreme Court is set to rule this session on a case dealing with social media as a theater for public threats, and will decide whether the threatening intent of a man (who used violent rap lyrics on Facebook to describe his relationship with his ex-wife) should be a legal consideration in prosecution, or if it should only matter if his ex-wife felt threatened when she saw the lyrics.  The question of intent is key when it comes to emoji, as there are as many possible meanings as there are readers.

Even words as concrete as our laws require interpretation; perhaps we should all consider carefully who will be interpreting our emoji as we send them out into the world.

Cara Rose DeFabio is a pop addicted, emoji fluent, transmedia artist, focusing on live events as an experience designer for Real Future.

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