Internet Law

Is emoji death threat a criminal offense? Possibly, law prof says

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Freelance journalist Fletcher Babb says he was targeted with some unsettling emojis after investigating a rapper apparently selling a cough-syrup cocktail on Instagram.

Babb had texted the rapper and posed as a potential customer, though he never agreed to buy any drugs and never sent any money, Mashable reports. The rapper accused Babb of backing out of his drug order. He identified Babb’s Instagram account, Mashable says, and posted a “foreboding collage of emojis: a face with X’s for eyes, and a gun pointing at the face.”

The incident spurred Mashable to consider whether emojis—online characters that range from smiley or sad faces to hearts to animals—could constitute harassment or criminal assault.

Mashable spoke with University of Wisconsin criminal justice professor Justin Patchin, who is co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. He said that the question for law enforcement is whether a reasonable person would feel threatened by the emojis. In Babb’s situation, he said, “I think a reasonable person would be threatened by that.”

Patchin said intimidating or threatening imagery communicated by emoji could warrant criminal prosecution for harassment or assault, particularly if there was physical action in addition to a threat. He also saw the possibility of a civil case for defamation or an intentional wrong. There could be federal jurisdiction as well, he said, because the threat crossed state lines on Instagram servers.

“This is still highly theoretical, of course,” the story says. “There has yet to be a publicized court case dealing with a threat or threats delivered via emoji. Given the troubling proliferation of cyberbullying on social media, however, it’s likely a matter of time.”

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