A 12-year-old middle school girl from Virginia has been arrested and is now facing criminal charges for using a threatening emoji symbols in an Instagram post in December of last year.
The post contained the word "killing" followed by emojis including a gun, a knife and a bomb. Because the resources officer from Lanier Middle School in Fairfax knew about the post, he initiated an immediate request to obtain the IP address of the user of the Instagram account. The police found out it was a 12-year-old girl from the same school.
According to the investigators, the girl admitted she posted the offensive emojis on Instagram with the name of another student. Ellainie Calangian of the Parent Herald writes that the girl is now accused of computer harassment and school menacing.
The spokesperson for Fairfax County Schools commented that the school found the threat not credible. The girl's mother said her daughter has never caused trouble before and added that the girl sent the messages in response to bullying attempts. The 12-year-old girl will appear in juvenile court later this month.
The assistant director of the Cyber Law Clinic at Harvard Law School, Dalia Topelson Ritvo, said the emojis were indeed offensive, but whether they could be classified as "threats" depend on the court's decision. She added that everyone understood the words in a particular way, but it was challenging to unravel the intent of symbols and images.
This is not the very first incident of its kind involving students and emoji scares, writes RT. In December 2015, a third grader from Colorado sent an e-mail full of emojis such as bombs and guns to the whole student body from another school. The school did not shut down, but police officers remained there to make sure everything was under control.
As emojis and emoticons have become increasingly popular, authorities have begun to face more difficulties in defining whether they constitute a real threat. Earlier in 2015, a Brooklyn grand jury dropped terror charges against a 17-year-old teenager who was accused of offending police on Facebook by posting an emoji of a police officer with three guns pointing at him, writes Thomas Tracey of the Daily News. In another case, a Michigan judge had to interpret the meaning of a face with a tongue sticking out.
According to Justin Jouvenal of The Washington Post, the number of such questions is likely to increase with the recent Facebook launch of five emojis allowing users to react to posts. The founder of Idibon, linguist Tyler Schnoebelen, said:
"Emoji are new enough that people are finding their footing. Almost all of these cases have emerged in the past couple years. They are all going into fresh legal territory."
The emojis became popular in the United States and worldwide after Apple launched an emoji keyboard on its iPhone in 2011. According to the advertising company Swyft Media, 6 billion emojis and other emoticons are sent daily. A survey by Internet startup Emogi revealed that 92 percent of the online population uses the icons.