The smiley face, heart, praying hands and other “emoji” have become the way millions of Internet users playfully punctuate their texts, posts and messages, but for one middle schooler the icons brought the police to her door.
The 12-year-old from Fairfax, Va., has been charged with threatening her school after police said she posted a message on Instagram in December laden with gun, bomb and knife emojis. It read in part:Killing “meet me in the library Tuesday”
As emoji and their relative the emoticon have rocketed from web slang to the unofficial language of the Internet age, the case is one of a growing number where authorities contend the cartoonish symbols have been used to stalk, harass, threaten or defame people. And that has left the police and courts wrestling with how to treat a newly popular idiom many still dimly grasp.
Police are trying to judge just how serious to take threatening messages using emoji, which are most often deployed in a light-hearted manner. Attorneys have argued over whether emoji should be presented to juries as evidence. Experts say the biggest problem is simply determining in court what a defendant actually intended by sending a particular emoji.
Is a winkie face emoji ironic, flirtatious or menacing? What exactly do the popular dancing girl or grinning pile of poo emoji actually mean — if anything — when appended to a message? Emoji have no set definition and their use can vary from user-to-user and context-to-context.
“You understand words in a particular way,” said, assistant director of the Cyber Law clinic at Harvard Law School. “It’s challenging with symbols and images to unravel that.”
“你可以根据语境去了解文字所代表的含义，”哈佛法学院的网络法律研究所副主任Dalia Topelson Ritvo说，“解读符号和图片所代表的意义，这将很具挑战性。”
It began on Dec. 14, when a resource officer at Sidney Lanier Middle School in Fairfax was made aware of the threatening Instagram post and others, according to a search warrant.
The officer began interviewing students and sent an emergency request to obtain the IP address of the user associated with the Instagram account. The investigation led to the 12-year-old, who was also a student at Lanier. The Post generally does not name juveniles accused of crimes.
The search warrant states the girl admitted to authorities she posted the messages on Instagram and did it under the name of another student. She was charged with threatening the school and computer harassment. A spokesman for Fairfax County schools said the alleged threat was deemed “not credible.”
The girl was scheduled to make her first appearance in juvenile court on the charges at the end of the month, but it is unclear whether the case has been resolved since the hearings are not open to the public.
Authorities have not released a motive in the case, but the girl’s mother said the girl posted the messages in response to being bullied at school.
“She’s a good kid. She’s never been in trouble before,” the woman said. “I don’t think it’s a case where there should have been charges.”