Have emojis changed with the rise of COVID-19?

#3: The 🙂 has taken on a sinister meaning in the age of SARS‑CoV‑2

Samuel Tan

7 Oct 2021

COVID-19 has changed how we live and communicate in so many ways, including our usage of certain emojis.

Prior to the pandemic, the ‘Face with Medical Mask’ emoji 😷 was primarily used to convey illness – which meant that it wasn’t used very often. Well, that is until mask-wearing became an important public health measure for all, following the rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2 via respiratory droplets and aerosol particles.

The ‘Syringe’ 💉 and ‘Microbe’ 🦠 were two other emojis that enjoyed a COVID-fuelled rise. The 💉 leapt in popularity as its predominant use changed from the drawing of blood to the critical need for vaccination (see word clouds below), while the 🦠 sprung from near oblivion to become the emoji used to depict the coronavirus (more about its suitability in a minute).

Top words tweeted with the 💉 before COVID-19 broke out

Top words tweeted with the 💉 after COVID-19 broke out

The use of 😷 as a delightfully simple way of communicating the need to mask up, however, riled COVID-19 denialists and others who were ideologically opposed to face coverings of any sort.

In a stroke of creativity gone rogue, some of them hit on the idea of appropriating the maskless ‘Slightly Smiling Face’ 🙂 for their cause. Paired with the motto #SmilesMatter, a movement was launched to reframe masks as a cruel concealer of human smiles, rather than a simple tool that could reduce viral transmissions, human suffering and save lives.

The anti-maskers had astutely played the gloomy 😷 against the cheery 🙂. Clearly, the masked emoji needed an update, now that it was used by people who were feeling well but wished to play their part in fighting the pandemic.

Apple was the first platform to officially do so in September 2020, with the release of its iOS 14 mobile operating system, which straightened the emoji’s droopy eyes and blushed its cheeks.

Behind the mask: the changing appearance of  😷 on Apple devices

In April 2021, Apple made another COVID-mindful emoji update, replacing its blood-filled (and dripping) ‘Syringe’ 💉 for one with a clear barrel to better represent vaccine jabs.

No more blood: the changing appearance of 💉 on Apple devices

Apple’s perceptive changes have since been implemented by Google and Twitter for both emojis, and by Samsung and WhatsApp/Facebook for just the mask wearing one. But, as of July 2021, Apple remains the only major platform to have an emoji that depicts a virus.

The ‘Microbe’ emoji 🦠 is a virus on Apple devices and bacteria elsewhere (July 2021)

This is part 3 of the 6-part series: “Do you speak Emoji? 6 surprising facts about the world’s digital tongue.”