And Finally

Trial by smile

Emojis become admissible in Chinese courts

Emojis w

U+1F631, U+1F914 and U+1F937 is Unicode notation for ‘screaming face’, ‘thinking face’ and ‘confused shrug’ in emojis.

It’s also how many reacted to the news that the Chinese courts have started to accept emoticons as evidence.

According to an article posted by the Jiangsu High Court to Sina Weibo last month, there have been 158 instances of cases where emojis have been deemed as meaningful communications in the last five years.

Examples range from a sun that was thought to express consent to a rent increase, a bomb implying a personal threat and a smiley face representing a request for paid sex.

Emoticons – facial expressions created out of punctuation marks – date back to the 1980s when American computer scientist Scott Fahlman suggested symbols to denote the tone of text messages. Then in the late 1990s Japanese designer Kurita Shigetaka assembled a set of 179 pictograms including a red heart, the peace sign and a waving hand for similar purposes.

The first smiley face appeared in the early part of this century and by the end of the decade Unicode had released its first standard set of emoji – albeit only for use in Japan at first.

Since then, emoji usage has gone global. Activity varies from country to country but China typically comes out high in the rankings because of the ubiquity of messaging apps such as WeChat. As with some other countries, the most popular emoji in China is the ‘crying-laughing’ symbol, although the ‘face palm’ sign also ranks highly.

The biggest problem with accepting emojis as evidence in court is that they don’t have standardised meanings. But lawyers around the world have argued that as a regular part of modern-day communication, they have to be admissible in court.

Compounding the issue is the fact that some emojis appear slightly differently on different devices – so an embarrassed smile on one platform might look like a happier one on another.

So far the Chinese courts haven’t taken a standardised view on exactly how emoji should be treated as evidence. One court in Xiamen interpreted the okay sign as agreeing to a contract, for example, while a court in Guangzhou issued guidance that an emoji can only be used as a guide to the overall tone of a conversation.

“Because emojis have various interpretations, it is better to use clear words in online conversations involving vital interests,” the article from the Jiangsu court also warned.

“The internet is not an extrajudicial place, and emojis must be used with caution in the online context,” it added.

Netizens expressed concern over the news, saying they would now be more careful in how they used emojis as a result. Many admitted that they also get confused by the symbols too. “Sometimes I don’t know if clapping hands mean ‘well done’ or ‘hurry up’,” one admitted.

Others agreed, noting too that people sometimes use the same emoji in different ways – a waving hand can mean goodbye in some conversations but denote stupid behaviour in others, they said.

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