Can emojis play a part in debates about our national identity?

PUBLISHED: 09:54 09 March 2017 | UPDATED: 09:54 09 March 2017

Later this year, emojis for the national flags of England, Scotland and Wales are being released.

Later this year, emojis for the national flags of England, Scotland and Wales are being released.

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This is the new political language of the emoji

Later this year, emojis for the national flags of England, Scotland and Wales are being released. This will be welcome news for those wanting to cheer on the sporting exploits of the home nations. But does it have any deeper political significance? Is it merely a coincidence they’re being released in the same year that Brexit’s being triggered? Or can emojis play a part in debates about the future of our national identity?

Brexit and emojis are concepts which barely existed in English a decade ago. Now, though, they’re amongst the most representative of the times we live in. Still, it seems a little frivolous to suggest that the state of modern society might be influenced by the relationship between them. After all, emojis started life simply as a way for Japanese teenagers to send heart-symbols to each other. They’re hardly a site for serious political debate, are they?

In fact, as emojis have become a major part of modern day communication, so they’ve begun to be co-opted into the world of politics.

For example, Finland has just released a number of new additions to the emojis the country uses to promote its national culture. These new symbols include a set about Tom of Finland, the artist known for his homoerotic drawings of highly-masculinized fetish subjects. Published to mark the legalisation of same-sex marriage on March 1, they celebrate the inclusive image Finland wishes to advertise for itself – and signal the dramatic change that has occurred in social attitudes since the artist’s early underground career.

Finland is, at present, the only European country that publishes its own bespoke emojis. Various political groups, both here and abroad, have tried to join the trend as a means of drumming up support for their candidates.

There have been Jeremojis, Berniemojis and Hillarymojis, among others (although no Theresa May emojis as yet). Quite how effective any of these are it’s difficult to say (not very, is probably the answer). But at a grass roots level, political debate involving emojis is growing.

Apparently, along with ginger-haired characters, the national flags of England, Scotland and Wales were the most requested for inclusion in the next emoji update by the Unicode Consortium (the people who oversee the world of emojis). This was supposedly due to people wanting to cheer on the home nations in sports events.

But it seems likely that the state of contemporary politics was also a factor. During Brexit, for example, the Union Jack emoji was often used in tweets, but without clear-cut political associations. According to research by the data scientist Hamdan Azhar, just over a third of tweets which used the union flag included the #VoteLeave hashtag, but then so also did a fifth of #VoteRemain tweets. Both sides, it seems, were using symbols to suggest that their perspective was a true reflection of British identity.

National flags always have contested meanings, of course. And in recent years this has been particularly the case for the St George’s Cross. In research conducted in 2012, a majority of people living in England felt more affinity for the Union Jack than they did for the English flag. And almost a quarter of them felt it had racist overtones.

The authors of the research report put this down mostly to the way that the “extreme street hooligans” of the English Defence League had degraded its image by appropriating it for their extremist-nationalist agenda.

The flag hasn’t always had this meaning. In the 1970s it was the Union Jack that had the racist overtones, having been adopted by the National Front and still retaining the symbolism of Britain’s empire-building and colonialist history.

In contrast, the St George’s Cross at the time was able to represent a more multi-ethnic England. In effect, the cultural meanings of the flags derive from who uses them and how, and the way this is then taken up or contested in society. And of course, underlying present debates about the flags in the UK is the more complicated issue about what ‘Englishness’ means in a radically shifting political landscape.

So what does all this have to do with emojis? In many ways, emojis work in a similar way to the national flags. Alongside their literal meaning, they can also take on particular shades of meaning through the way they’re used.

It’s this aspect of their use that leads to hapless news reports about the ‘secret emoji codes’ that millennials use. A much lampooned instance of this was when a news station in Seattle recently attempted to demystify this secret language for their viewers by explaining, for example, that the hibiscus emoji meant drugs, and that the frog could be used in cyber-bullying as a way of saying “you’re ugly”.

While there’s no compelling evidence to suggest that either are used this way, the frog emoji is, in fact, a good example of the way symbols can become appropriated to signal specific meanings. For a long time a frog was included in the Twitter name used by Richard Spencer, the alt-right activist who gained mainstream notoriety when he was punched on air during a rally at Donald Trump’s inauguration. In this context, the emoji was an explicit reference to the Pepe the Frog meme, and a way of identifying Spencer with a particular far-right ideology.

The cartoon Pepe began as a character in a comic by Matt Furie. In 2016, its popularity as an apolitical meme began to be appropriated, for reasons which are not entirely clear, by the alt-right. This then led to the Anti-Defamation League listing it as a hate symbol, which in turn standardised its meaning for the communities that Spencer is associated with.

As social media acts more and more as a site for political debate, so emojis are becoming a key part of this. The raised fist emoji, for example, has become a symbol of resistance to Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric and policies over the last few weeks.

And then there’s the paperclip. Following Brexit and the US election, people began wearing safety pins on their clothes as a symbol of solidarity towards minorities. As there’s no safety pin emoji, instead the paperclip started to be used in Twitter usernames as a close substitute.

This process of appropriating and disputing the symbolic meanings of characters is never static, and to what extent any of these political meanings are likely to stick is difficult to say. In the case of Pepe, for example, Matt Furie and the Anti-Defamation League have launched a #SavePepe campaign to try to reclaim the character.

And Richard Spencer has since changed his Twitter name from a frog to a glass of milk, which has become another white supremacist symbol – in this case something to do with misguided beliefs that correlate white ethnic identity with the body’s tolerance for lactose.

Whether the new flag emojis get co-opted into the nationalist politics of post-Brexit Britain, and how this colours their cultural meaning, remains to be seen. But what is clear is that emojis are no longer just a means of trivial expression. They’re beginning to evolve as a critical language, and are used to express and contest political meaning in the same way any other language does.

Philip Seargeant is a writer and senior lecturer at the Open University, where he specialises in topics on language and
communication

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