An emoji too far: Brexit cashcow or freedom of expression?

Barely a day goes by where something Brexit-related fails to make it on to the media agenda. As reality has it, Brexit dominates conversation today, particularly in the UK but also across social media, with its powerful international reach.

Numerous companies and politicians alike have been ‘cashing in’ on the contested Brexit verdict. The latest installment of this was aired yesterday when The Guardian reported that an Italian company are planning to release two contrasting ‘Brexit-themed’ emojis. In essence, consumers will soon be able to tailor their social media profiles in line with their individual Brexit stances. Those interested will get the chance to purchase the company’s new application, before selecting between a cigar-touting, bulldog ‘Brexiteer’ emoji or its ‘Starry Blue’ remainer adversary.

Screenshot 2018-04-02 at 16.28.09

Brexiteer Bulldog vs Starry Blue: would you use them?

As with any divisive issue, there are two sides to the coin. The company has picked up on how frequently Brexit is discussed on social media platforms and claim to simplify any confusion brought by current mixtures of emojis used to illustrate views surrounding the issue. They insist that the focus groups they quizzed about the app would happily use the symbols to tell others what Brexit means to them.

Of course, emojis were intended to simplify our conversations. Anybody can now receive multiple ‘beer-clinking’ emojis and know exactly what their pal intends to do later that night. Whole conversations have been had via substituting tried and tested words with amusing smiley faces and pop culture symbols. However, perhaps we should think about the confusion an emoji exemplifying an issue as complex as Brexit could lead to. After all, ‘Brexit means Brexit’, but what does that really even mean, in itself? Does anybody know right now? No, not at all. The relentless ambiguity surrounding Brexit developments and discourses means that the proposed app will simply trivialise an issue that we need to take very seriously, given its potentially grave (or, if you’re a Brexiteer ‘incredible’) aftermath.

We also forget that emojis themselves can, believe it or not, come with a complete lack of context. Pair with this the idea that many of those who voted in the referendum sat passively in the middle of the leave-remain spectrum (a far cry from the nationalist bulldog or the EU superfan the app conveys) and a spell for disaster becomes apparent.

The European Collective (a group of Brexiteer Tory MPs) and the Remain Group (a cohort of Pro-EU MPs) have issued a joint statement to label the app plans as ‘divisive’ and ‘dangerous’, after they were leaked. ‘Dangerous’ may be a slight over-statement, but frankly, a fresh means to invoke divisiveness is the last thing that Britain’s chaotic political scene needs right now…

Companies will always play to current affairs, some opportunistically cashing in on political developments. Perhaps the emoji firm is making a great commercial decision. Perhaps they are simply responding to market desires. Former employee, Riccardo Nicoletti has even argued that political campaign groups would happily spend other peoples’ money to get an advantage, so why shouldn’t his previous employer?

Even so, what is arguably of greatest concern is that, if users do not wish to pay for the emojis, they can simply ‘share their political preferences’ with the firm in exchange… Hello? Have we not learned anything from the Cambridge Analytica Scandal? Exchanging one’s personal information in return for access to any kind of social media activity invokes significant vulnerabilities. Let us not forget that collated data sets on these desired ‘political preferences’ may be used by organisations a lot less amicable than one’s chosen emoji provider…

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