An Emoji Death Threat Is Still a Death Threat | Smart News | Smithsonian
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Threaten with emoji, go to jail. (Rose Eveleth)

An Emoji Death Threat Is Still a Death Threat

Death threats are illegal. Even if they come in the form of emoji.

smithsonian.com

It might be difficult to sext someone using emoji, but expressing that you want them dead isn’t hard. But if you do, be warned: death threats are illegal. Even if they come in the form of an emoji. 

Recently, journalist Fletcher Babb received a comment on his Instagram feed that depicted a little gun pointed at a little dead man. It’s not hard to work out what that set of emojis really means—somebody was threatening Babb with death.

Lauren O’Neil at CBC News reports on what happened in the run up to the emoji threat:

Babb was in the midst of researching Instagram's black market subculture for a piece when he discovered an Atlanta-based rapper who appeared to be selling a drug-laced syrup called "lean" through the social network. 

Posing as a potential customer, Babb contacted the account owner via text message and attempted to set up a purchase. 

After an interaction consisting of seven text messages, Babb ceased all communication -- much to the alleged dealer's discontent.

When Babb disappeared, the rapper wasn’t so pleased and left the offending emoji as a comment on Babb's Instagram. Babb led his resulting piece with the sentence, “As I write this, a drug dealer wants me dead. It might be spelled out in Emoji, but a death threat’s a death threat.” Rebecca Hiscott at Mashable wanted to know if that was true legally, so she called up some experts:

"When law enforcement investigates, they have to determine whether a person would have been reasonably threatened," says Justin Patchin, Ph.D., a professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. In Babb's situation, "I think a reasonable person would be threatened by that."

Intimidating or threatening imagery delivered via emoji, especially if it has been sustained over time or if the threats are coupled with some physical action, could warrant a criminal case on the grounds of assault or stalking, according to Patchin. It could also be tried under civil or tort law as a case of defamation or an intentional wrong resulting in harm.

In other words, yes, should Babb and the police press charges, they have a case. Even though the threat was two little images. Hiscott points out that Babb’s public Instagram shows him and his movements around his neighborhood. So should someone have wanted to find him and turn him into that little dead emoji man, it wouldn’t have been all that difficult. And you might also remember the case of teenager Justin Carter, who spent five months in prison for joking about shooting up a kindergarten on Facebook. So think twice before you threaten someone’s life using emoji. 

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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