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Interpreting Emojis as Court Evidence

Emojis on cellphones and other digital devices have advanced their popularity as a way to express emotion. It should be no surprise then that their ubiquity has brought them into court cases. However, the accepted meanings of the emojis has not caught up to their ubiquity. Enter “forensic linguistics” — a field being remade to include analysis of the meaning and usage of emojis in communication, especially where the meaning of a phrase or image can be contentious.

In the U.S., one circuit court held that the use of the “tongue out” emoji was “intended to insult, ridicule, criticize and denigrate” the plaintiff on social media platforms.

In France, in 2016, a man was convicted of threatening his ex-girlfriend and sentenced to three months in prison after sending her a gun emoji. The court said it translated to a “Death threat in the form of an image.”

In civil cases in the U.S., the “thumbs up,” “fist bump,” “handshake,” and “glasses” emojis have variously constituted an agreement or an intention to enter into a contractual agreement.

Other emojis are less definite in their interpretation. The monkey or pig emojis may be insulting, degrading, or racist depending on the sender or the recipient. The “pinching your fingers together” emoji likely means “What do you want?” when the sender is Italian, but it could be interpreted as “Are you hungry?” if the recipient is from India.

The “thumbs up” emoji is variously an insult or a sign that everything is in order, depending on the region where it is used.

Emojis have come a long way since they were first developed in Japan in the late 1990s. Rhodes University in South Africa recently held a two-day colloquium for forensic linguists and legal practitioners to discuss developments in international laws as they relate to emojis.

Like it or not, emojis are here to stay, and they are up to interpretation in a court of law. The burgeoning field of their study as part of forensic linguistics signals how seriously they are being taken by plaintiffs, including governments and law enforcement. The author of this article wonders how long before a sexual harassment case hinges on the use of an eggplant emoji. 


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