The specificity of Donald Trump Jr.’s email chain is what makes it so damning.
On Tuesday, the oldest son of the president published emails (obtained beforehand by The New York Times) in which he wrote to a friend who was serving as liaison between the Trump campaign and a Russian lawyer with connections to the Russian government. The emails show Trump Jr. had reason to believe he was being offered Moscow’s help to get his father into the White House in 2016, and he responded to that information by writing, “if it’s what you say I love it…”
Email is a medium that lends itself to this kind of specificity. As Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times recently wrote, “It preserves time, location and state of mind.” For all of email’s issues, this may prove to be a great thing for the future integrity of American democracy. But as messaging platforms such as Slack slowly eat away at email’s dominance in the field of professional correspondence, that specificity may not be something we enjoy for much longer. What happens when, perhaps sooner than we think, the next text-based scandal breaks and leaves Americans deciphering a slew of Slack messages full of emoji? What if, instead of writing, “I love it,” Trump Jr. had just responded with a heart? How would Americans interpret that?
In fact, this type of situation has already gone to court. In early 2015 in New York City, police went to court with a teenager over the meaning of the gun emoji. The 17-year-old had posted Facebook statuses with a gun emoji pointed at an emoji of a police officer, and the NYPD initially charged him with making terroristic threats. The teenager’s lawyer called the charge irrational, and the debate hinged on whether the kid had made a “true threat” or was perhaps just angrily tapping out some little pictures.
If the current political climate of America tells us anything, it should be that a consensus on emoji interpretation is unlikely.
The difference between guilt and innocence in leaks of future potentially incriminating documents could come down to a similar debate over interpretation.
“If [Trump Jr.] would have just put a bunch of very happy sounding emojis, how would it have gone in The New York Times?” said Bradley Shear, a lawyer with expertise in social media law. “I mean, what would they have said? That’s the big question.”
Shear thinks we’ll have to figure out “what things mean” as a society. How do we interpret a heart emoji? A gun emoji? A smiley face? If Trump Jr. had responded to the news of possible Russian government assistance with a champagne bottle emoji, is that definitively positive? Somehow sarcastic?
If the current political climate of America tells us anything, it should be that a consensus on emoji interpretation is unlikely. That means any important interpretation will probably be left up to whoever is presiding over the meaning of an emoji or two in court.
“Pictures and emoticons, they mean something slightly different depending on who’s using them,” Shear said. “It will come down to the interpretation of the fact finder, whether it’s a judge or a jury.”
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