Are emojis the new weapon against censorship?

#4: Emojis have given voice to muzzled hate but also silenced truths

Samuel Tan

8 Oct 2021

Following England’s 2020 UEFA European Football Championship finals loss to Italy, thuggish England supporters were seen violently assaulting Italy fans, both at Wembley Stadium and on the streets of London.

This barbarism was mirrored online with the verbal assault of 3 Black members of the English team, who were flooded with abusive messages on social media, often accompanied by a string of monkey-related emojis. From 🐒🐵🦧🦍 to 🙈🙉🙊🍌, these emojis were used as digital equivalents of the ‘monkey chants’ and banana throwing found at too many football matches, and the latest incarnation of the long Western history of dehumanising Black people as beastly primates.

Yet, when the BBC tried reporting one such message to Instagram, the platform responded that none of its community guidelines were violated – exposing its ill-preparedness in handling emojified racist slurs. (After the English Football Association, British government and royalty all condemned the hateful messages, Instagram’s head subsequently admitted that the platform was mistaken).

However, some platforms have started to clamp down on sexualised emojis. In September 2019, Facebook and Instagram updated their existing ban on sexual solicitation to include messages containing “contextually specific and commonly sexual emojis or emoji strings”. This effectively censored the predominant use of the ‘Eggplant’ 🍆 and ‘Peach’ 🍑 emojis to represent the penis and buttocks (and things done with them).

While some media outlets disagreed with the regulatory update, scholarly research has found that emojis are actively being used by convicted sexual predators in grooming conversations, and by sex traffickers to mask their communications (see McMahon & Kirley, 2019, for an overview).

Emoji erotica: texting the 🐤 and the 🐝

But the camouflaging cover that emojis have provided racial abuse and sexual crime has also enabled information of public interest to evade political suppression.

In early 2020, censors in China erased a published interview with Wuhan Central Hospital’s Director of Emergency Services, Ai Fen (艾芬). The senior doctor had disclosed to state-run People《人物》magazine that she had tried to sound the alarm about a patient suffering from pneumonic infection caused by a SARS-like coronavirus in late December 2019. But she was reprimanded by officials at Wuhan’s health commission for “spreading rumours”, and ordered to notify all her staff not to speak about the illness. Ai said she regretted complying with the gag order, after a number of colleagues – including whistle-blower Li Wen Liang (李文亮) – subsequently died of COVID-19 while treating patients.

Outraged netizens quickly made the text and screenshots of the censored article go viral on Chinese social media, encoding portions of the interview in emoji and fictional languages like Klingon and Elvish, to evade censors for some time.

Emoji exposé: codifying the censored COVID-19 cover-up by Wuhan officials

Emojis were likewise used when the #MeToo movement arrived in China, where discussions on gender equality are curtailed by the state. Because “rice rabbit” in Mandarin sounds like “Me Too”, the ‘Rice’ 🍚 and ‘Rabbit’ 🐰 emojis were quickly used as graphic homophones to tag social media posts exposing cases of sexual harassment.

Over in Israel, where publicly displaying the flag of Palestine can be penalised under government security regulations, the ‘Watermelon’ 🍉 emoji has been used in messages supporting the Palestinian national cause. With a white segment separating its red flesh from its green-and-black rind, the watermelon slice captures the colours of Palestine’s flag, and has a decades-long history as an iconic political symbol.

Breaking the silence on #MeToo and Palestinian nationhood

The growing stature of emojis in public life hasn’t gone unnoticed. In early 2016, instant messaging applications in Indonesia were ordered by the government to purge their platforms of same sex emojis. These included various composite emojis featuring two men or women ‘Holding Hands’ 👬👭, ‘Kissing’ 👩‍❤️‍💋‍👩👨‍❤️‍💋‍👨, or appearing as parents of a ‘Family’ 👨‍👨‍👦👨‍👨‍👧👨‍👩‍👧‍👧👩‍👩‍👦‍👦👩‍👩‍👧👩‍👩‍👦, which the authorities of the largely Muslim country feared would normalise homosexuality among the youth.

Meanwhile, seasonal blocking of politically sensitive emojis in China has been underway since at least 2012. Every year, emojis on Sina Weibo popularly used for commemorations – the platform’s equivalents of Unicode’s ‘Candle’ 🕯️, ‘Birthday Cake’ 🎂 and ‘Leaf Fluttering in Wind’ 🍃 – vanish in the days nearing and following June 4th: the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Neither are emojis always taken lightly in socially liberal USA. Criminal threat charges were brought against a 12-year-old student who posted an Instagram message with the ‘Pistol’ 🔫, ‘Kitchen Knife’ 🔪 and ‘Bomb’ 💣 emojis, while another 17-year-old faced domestic terrorism charges after publishing a Facebook post with ‘Pistol’ emojis next to one representing ‘Police Officer’:💉💉👮🔫🔫🔫 .

But among the ranks of “subversive” emojis, few can rival the transnational reach of the ‘Milk Tea’ on Twitter, which features a white cup sporting a tea leaves logo and straw against a tri-colour background of different milk tea shades. Launched in April 2021, for a pan-Asian democratic solidarity movement driven by digitally-connected activists spanning Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan and Myanmar – who have come to view their local struggles against the CPC, Thai royalty and Tatmadaw as part of a common struggle against authoritarianism – this emoji now surfaces whenever the hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance is tweeted.

Emancipatory expectations: Twitter’s exclusive emoji for the #MilkTeaAlliance

This is part 4 of the 6-part series: “Do you speak Emoji? 6 surprising facts about the world’s digital tongue.”