Emoji censorship is now an actual political problem

Elena Scotti/FUSION

Emoji can bring joy and laughter into the most mundane texts, and can even seduce a lover, but can they be used to change hearts and minds? Some groups seem to think that banning a particular emoji will help their causes. In recent weeks we've seen emoji politicized as a Russian politician and a group in the U.S. have sought to get specific emoji characters banned from use.

Russia, as you may know, is one of 79 countries where homosexuality is still illegal. Refusing to be outdone by other countries, where only physical acts of gay love are outlawed, Russia goes above and beyond, also banning any gay ‘propaganda’ that might influence the youth. Artists like Madonna and Lady Gaga have been prohibited from performing there under these laws, but recently a politician used the legislation to take aim at a new culprit corrupting the young minds of mother Russia: emoji.


Last week Russian senator Mikhail Marchenko asked for a formal investigation into whether emoji characters depicting homosexuality were in violation of the anti-gay propaganda laws. I’ve been unable to find exactly which emoji he thinks are too gay for impressionable minds, but assume it includes:

👬, 👭, 🌈 and possibly even 🐬. Certainly all of the most recent iOS additions that came out this spring, which included a whole array of non-hetero families, would make the list.

Emoji censorship is being called for in the US of A as well with a political group setting its sights on banning a different emoji from the lexicon. New Yorkers Against Gun Violence has launched a campaign to banish the gun emoji from the alphabet in an effort to #DisarmTheiPhone. The group's website uses emoji to bring attention to several powerful statistics, such as there being enough guns in America for every man, woman and child.

#DisarmTheiPhone twitter campagin

I can see the appeal of using the popular characters in a campaign like this: they are cute and of the moment, and make an otherwise bleak and sullen campaign look bright and fresh. If their aim is to raise awareness: mission accomplished.


However if either the gun control advocates in this country, or the aggressively homophobic legislature in Russia wants to actually ban an emoji, the task could prove very difficult. Remember, the icons are not just little pictures, they are actual bits of code, that at present are supported across lots of different platforms all over the web. Banning a set of emoji from a region might be as challenging as trying to ban a word or an idea.

On a single platform emoji can be easier to regulate, as on Instagram which erected a ban on the eggplant emoji hashtag ( #🍆) because of its naughty translation. If Russia were to ban every platform that uses emoji, they would have a world without Twitter or Facebook or Chrome, or any Apple products, where emoji come automatically installed. Speaking of Apple, that’s exactly where the gun control advocates have started; they published an open letter to Tim Cook himself, asking that he join their fight for a gun-free emoji alphabet, and a gun-free world.


Can an icon alone promote violence? People in New York certainly seem to think so. Earlier this year, a teenager was charged with threatening police for posting "👮🔫🔫🔫" on Facebook.

The call for bans forces us to ask challenging questions about what exactly emoji are. Are they words and therefore protected under free speech laws? Are they visual propaganda? Are they something else entirely?


To me it seems clear that emoji are ideas. Ideas can be dangerous, but banning them is far worse. 💣

Cara Rose DeFabio is a pop addicted, emoji fluent, transmedia artist, focusing on live events as an experience designer for Real Future.

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