An Emoji Is Worth a Thousand Words — and Maybe a Lawsuit

By neub9
6 Min Read

Emojis serve as more than just fun and cute symbols to enhance online conversations. They are also potent and expressive tools capable of conveying intricate messages and emotions. Organizations involved in digital communications, a field relevant to nearly all organizations in the current age, must acknowledge the potential risks and challenges associated with emojis and employ effective strategies for managing and analyzing emoji data, as noted by Ajay Bhatia of Veritas Technologies. While emojis may indeed represent the language of the digital era, they are not without their pitfalls and ambiguities.

When Elon Musk tweeted a single emoji at Twitter during their tumultuous pre-acquisition legal battle, he likely didn’t expect to ignite a court debate over the meaning behind his visual slight. However, that tiny icon has now become evidence in the legal proceedings against the billionaire entrepreneur. Musk’s seemingly insignificant emoji has joined the growing list of court cases illustrating the immense legal significance of these small images.

Just as ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs evolved into a complex writing system 5,000 years ago, the modern pictograms known as emojis are becoming the visual language of the digital era. What originated as a lighthearted way to add images to text decades ago in Japan has now exploded into a ubiquitous mode of communication for billions of people worldwide.

As emojis continue to deeply permeate online conversations, organizations are realizing they carry implications for digital communication transparency, integrity, and security. Without proper governance, companies run major risks, including regulatory violations due to inability to comprehensively search, analyze, and produce emoji-based data when required.

Musk’s court drama only scratches the surface of emojis’ growing legal importance. These playful digital icons have become so deeply embedded in online conversation that regulators and the courts are now forced to take them seriously.

Emojis convey meaning and emotion, much like textual language. When smiling face with heart eyes () or face with tears of joy () are deployed, complex sentiments can be immediately conveyed. As University of Michigan professor and digital communications expert Vyvyan Evans has written, “emojis are the body language of the digital age,” thanks to their ability to convey context, concepts, and ideas.

Over the past several years, emojis have increasingly found their way into major lawsuits and criminal cases, which has slowly legitimized them as critical context in communications. For example, in a 2017 Massachusetts murder trial, “an emoji with Xs for eyes — aka the ‘Dizzy Face’” was entered as evidence that it was sent to convey the message to the recipient that “something was happening.” 

The increasing appearance of emoji evidence in global courts and legal findings indicates that authorities worldwide are taking them more seriously when evaluating digital conversations. While emojis may seem like trivial decorations, they do impact overall meaning and tone. As digital oversight grows, organizations must follow suit and govern emoji data with as much vigilance as text. 

A data governance challenge

Emojis may delight casual texters, but for regulated industries, these playful icons create severe data governance headaches. As emojis garner greater legal status in courts and cases worldwide, organizations must view them with the same scrutiny as written communications. However, governance teams may find that emoji literacy presents complex data management challenges.

For one, emojis often don’t translate cleanly across messaging platforms, and those differences can be significant and could lead to misinterpretation. Cultural meanings also complicate things. In the U.S., a thumbs-up signals agreement, but in other parts of the world, it’s akin to flipping someone the middle finger. Similarly, the applause emoji is used in the West to show appreciation, but in China, it’s most often used to reference sex.

These variations make it imperative for legal and compliance teams to correctly interpret emojis when evaluating digital communications. Precise analysis, however, is significantly hindered by emoji metadata deficiencies. Metadata provides critical contextual clues — like timestamps, sender and recipient details and information about the platform used. Yet this metadata is often sparse or missing altogether. And emoji intent and interpretation are inherently subjective. When embroiled in a legal battle or facing regulatory audits, organizations must prove they can search data and make complete sense of emojis as communication. Without ironclad governance, risky regulatory failures or fines could be in the cards.

Best practices for emoji data 

With the risks of emojis established, implementing effective governance of them is key. Government bodies and courts will increasingly assess how well companies control these symbols, making smart emoji data strategies critical. Best practices for emoji data management include:

  • Metadata support: Missing metadata leaves the context of a communication ambiguous, platforms must fully support detailed emoji metadata.
  • Standardization policies: Default emoji images and meanings should be standardized across enterprise communications channels. This limits misinterpretations from format variances.
  • Employee training: Conduct organization-wide training on properly documenting emoji interpretations in official communications and being mindful of tone.
  • Guidance policies: Issue policies on how emojis can be used, including lists of risky or offensive emojis to avoid across cultures. This helps guide proper usage.

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