How emojis can land you in trouble: a cautionary tale. 

Emojis are ubiquitous in our online communication, but they are not always harmless. Sometimes, they can have serious legal implications, as the following examples show.

In the summer of 2022, a man named Ryan Cohen, who was known as the “meme king” for his involvement in meme stocks, replied to a tweet about the stock market woes of Bed, Bath & Beyond, a home goods retailer, with a full moon face emoji 🌝. What did he mean by that? According to the shareholders of Bed, Bath & Beyond, he meant to imply that the stock price was going to skyrocket (to the moon, as the expression goes). This emoji is often used by online traders to indicate that a stock has a lot of potential. And that’s what happened: the stock price surged after Cohen’s tweet, and he sold his 12% stake in the company for a whopping $60 million (about €55 million). But his emoji did not go unnoticed: he was sued by the shareholders for stock fraud, partly because he allegedly misled the investors by using that emoji. His lawyers tried to dismiss the lawsuit, but the court in Washington D.C. ruled that emojis are not totems of immunity and “can also be subject to litigation”. Emojis are not always clear in their meaning. They can be interpreted differently depending on the context and the culture. This can lead to misunderstandings and conflicts, especially in the professional sphere.

In November 2023, when OpenAI briefly ousted its former CEO Sam Altman, the employees reacted to the internal announcement with a middle finger emoji. This was a clear sign of disrespect and dissatisfaction. But in other cases, the meaning of an emoji can be more ambiguous.

A Canadian farmer learned this the hard way in 2021 when he decided to respond with a thumbs up emoji 👍 to a photo of a purchase contract. The buyer never received the grains and accused the farmer of breaching the contract. The farmer claimed that the thumbs up emoji did not mean that he agreed to the deal, but simply that he acknowledged it. The court disagreed and ordered the farmer to pay about $60,000 (€55,000).

Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University who has studied the use of emojis, says that in 2023, they appeared in more than 200 court cases in the US. As emojis become an integral part of our daily life, “the courts are flooded with evidence that includes emojis and emoticons”, he says. He found, mentioned in criminal lawsuits, eye rolls 😒, kisses 😘, or even grimaces 😬. However, he believes that the US legal system is well equipped to deal with informal communication. Whether it is non-verbal gestures like handshakes, or emojis in this case, the justice finds its answers based on the context. The moral of the story: think twice before you hide behind your favorite emoji.

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