by Bunmi Ibigbami

Facebook and Instagram Ban Sexually Suggestive Emojis[1]

Policy Issues: Technology and Social Change

Following an update to Facebook’s Sexual Solicitation Community Standards, Facebook and Instagram have recently banned some emojis (aubergine, peach and the water drip characters) for being too sexually suggestive. The banned emojis were originally created to represent foods, but they are mostly used for sexual connotations associated with them. Facebook explained that having recognized the manner in which the platform draws attention to sexual violence and exploitation, it then sought to restrict sexually explicit language that may lead to solicitation by sex workers.

Restriction on Emoji usage, not the best option

The name emoji combines two Japanese words: “e” (picture) and “moji” (character).[2] Before emojis, there were emoticons– facial expressions made with punctuation marks. The first emoticons appeared in Puck magazine in 1881 where the magazine published four “faces”—conveying joy, melancholy, indifference, and astonishment.[3] Also, when it became difficult for people to tell the difference between jokes and serious posts, a faculty member of Carnegie Mellon University digital message board, came up  with a solution of adding symbols to texts. A Japanese communications company, NTT DoCoMo[4] created emojis at the end of the 90´s, and their use has increased on many social networks; they have evolved into characters for the new millennial[5].

An emoji statistic on Emojipedia[6] in October 2019 revealed that there is a total of 3,178 emojis in the Unicode Standard (which is the world standard for Text and Emoji[7]). The emojis represent human emotions, various types of situations, objects, humans and places. It was also revealed that 5 billion emojis are sent daily on Facebook Messenger, half of all comments on Instagram include an emoji, however, only 7% of people use the peach emoji as a fruit, the rest mostly use it as a butt or for other non-fruit uses. Also, most of the people use the aubergine (eggplant) emoji to describe the male reproductive organ. See the emojis below:

 

Consequently, Facebook and Instagram have banned these emojis for ‘being too sexually suggestive’. According to the report, the ban is part of an update to Facebook’s Sexual Solicitation Community Standards, ‘which are aimed at sex workers who use the platforms to sell their services’.[8] The phrase ‘being too sexually suggestive’ is potentially ambiguous[9] as it contains no clear or specific meaning. When can an emoji be said to be sexually suggestive or too sexually suggestive? How is the sexual suggestiveness of an emoji measured? Who decides sexuality in fruit emojis; users or creators of the emojis? If the emojis are banned because of the 93% of users who use them for sexually suggestive purposes, does this mean the rights of the 7% who use them as fruits are not worthy of protection and freedom of usage on the platforms?

Therefore, there is need to explicitly define what ‘sexually suggestive’ and ‘too sexually suggestive’ mean. An emoji that is sexually suggestive literally means a character with ‘sexual undertones implying sexual intent in order to provoke sexual arousal’.[10] So when can it be said to be too sexually suggestive? Is it when users have actual sexual activities at the sight of these emojis? Or when the emojis make people misbehave? why is sexual suggestiveness an entirely negative concept amongst humans with sexuality? Sex appears to be a ‘touchy subject’ among many in our present society, as some people only tend to see the act in a negative light. Use of sexual emojis amongst consenting adults (at least for adults of opposite sex in a country like Nigeria) should not be a crime that needs urgent ban. Also, in Nigeria, the Federal Government through the Minister of Information and Culture, recently disclosed that it is working on how to inject sanity into social media. What does the FG mean by Sanity?

From the report, the ban was aimed at sex workers who use the platforms to sell their services. Does this mean people that are not sex workers do not use the emojis? If it is targeted at sexual workers, why the extreme ban of the emojis for users? It is no news that sex workers all over the world face a constant risk of abuse. In 2015, Amnesty International published policy and research on protection of sex workers’ rights, they believe that those who exploit or abuse sex workers must be criminalized.[11] Is this ban not a form of exploitation that should be criminalized if the policy is approved?

Conclusively, sexual perversion in our society is not caused or increased by the usage of these emojis, banning them will not solve the problem. People have a way of changing the intended meaning of things to promote their own intentions, thereby gaining support (on the platforms) and affecting other peoples’ perception about such things also. The founders of Facebook and Instagram need to understand that one of the features that attract millennials to its contents is the availability of emojis and the freedom to use them for the users’ intentions. For example, some social network users love to abbreviate words during chats, they use abbreviations like; lol (laugh out loud), tgif (thank God it’s Friday), urw (you are welcome), etc. The abbreviations are not dictionary words, or intended meanings of the creators of the letters, but users have been able to create new meanings out the words and these ease conversations. Therefore, users should also have the freedom of attaching their own meanings to emojis without restrictions.

 

[1]Facebook and Instagram Bans Sexually Suggestive Emojis by Michael Bamidele on the 31st of October 2019 in the Guardian Newspaper (Online Version). Available at: https://guardian.ng/life/facebook-and-instagram-bans-sexually-suggestive-emojis/. Date accessed: 31/10/2019.

[2]Why Do We Use Emojis Anyway? A Fascinating History of Emoticons by Clare Nowak in the Readers Digest. Available at: https://www.rd.com/culture/history-of-emoji/. Date accessed: 31/10/2019.

[3]Ibid.

[4]Why and How to Use Emojis on Social Media? Plus: How to Schedule Posts with Emojis with Postcron by Eugenia Skaf on Postcron Blog. Available at: https://postcron.com/en/blog/emojis-on-social-media/. Date accessed: 31/10/2019.

[5]Millennial are People who spent their adult life during the change of the millennium, or those who were born in the 80’s or at the beginning of the 90’s.

[6]Emoji Statistics on Emojipedia. Available at: https://emojipedia.org/stats/. Date accessed: 31/10/2019.

[7]Unicode Website. Available at: https://home.unicode.org/. Date accessed: 31/10/2019.

[8]Op.Cit. Facebook and Instagram Bans Sexually Suggestive Emojis by Michael Bamidele.

[9]What words or phrases are ambiguous? Asking the right questions: a guide to critical thinking/M. Neil Browne, Stuart M. Keeley. —8th ed. Chapter 4 page 37.

[10]Sexual suggestiveness on Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexual_suggestiveness. Date accessed: 31/10/2019.

[11]Sex Workers’ Rights Are Human Rights by Catherine Murphya in the Amnesty International website. Available at: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/08/sex-workers-rights-are-human-rights/. Date accessed: 31/10/2019.