Judges in US courts face the challenge of handling the nuances of emojis as evidence. Emojis are small digital icons which express an idea, emotion or action. However, given that emojis are not a universal language, they are easily misinterpreted when they are used alone without accompanying text. For instance, the emoji with smoke coming out of the nose could be interpreted as ‘angry’ when it is supposed to mean ‘triumph’. Furthermore, the emojis are rendered differently on varying platforms, giving rise to further inconsistencies and miscommunication.

Emojis are most prevalent in sexual harassment and criminal cases. In a murder case in 2017, the judge had to consider whether the dizzy face emoji (the emoji with Xs for eyes) showed that the recipient knew that something was going on. As some use emojis as a form of humour or to lighten conversations, judges have to decide whether some emojis are communicating a threat or a joke. Could one send a knife emoji to a potential victim and then follow up by saying that he was only just joking?

There are no official guidelines on emojis and judges have had to create ad-hoc guidelines on how to interpret emojis. In some cases, the judges describe the emoji to the jury rather than to allow them to see it. In other cases, emojis are omitted from evidence altogether. However, this can be problematic as emojis may stand as relevant evidence. For instance, the crown emoji often references a pimp in the sex trafficking world and this can provide evidence of prostitution. As with all new forms of technology, judges will quickly have to learn how to adapt existing legal principles to this new technology.

Read the full article on CNN: Emojis are increasingly coming up in court cases. Judges are struggling with how to interpret them


As much as hand symbols vary by culture, emojis cannot be considered a universal language as it is subjectively interpreted differently by different people. With the prevalence of emojis, how do we learn how to minimise inconsistencies and avenues for miscommunication when we use emojis in our everyday life? It can be very problematic for communication if emojis are used indiscriminately without offering any further context. For instance, the smiley face emoji is actually taken to mean sarcasm in China.

Could emojis be used to obstruct the operation of the law? We may decide to use threatening symbols such as a pistol, a stabbing knife and a pointed finger and later soften our position with a symbol that we are just joking. If we do not allow people to hide behind the “I’m just joking” excuse when they make physical threats, should we allow individuals to make threats via emojis and then allow them to say it was not serious? Perhaps, this issue will only be resolved as the court learns by having more emojis surface in future cases.

Questions for further personal evaluation: 

  1. How do you use emojis in your daily life? Do you think that we can be more intentional about how others would interpret our emojis? 
  2. What additional information do we convey with emojis over plain language? Should emojis be permitted for academic essays and official documents then? 

Useful vocabulary: 

  1. ‘influx’: a coming in
  2. ‘vernacular’: language, expression or mode of expression; typically used in ordinary speech rather than formal writing