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12-Year-Old Girl Facing Criminal Charges Over Emoji Use

A 12-year-old girl from Fairfax, Virginia, USA has been charged with threatening to commit an attack against her school in a post on Instagram, The Washington Post reports. The offending message in question contained no direct threats, nor any verbal intent that the girl meant harm against her school or anyone within it. However, the content of her message, included particular ideograms that have been interpreted by police as demonstrating intent to harm others.

Her message read:

Killing ?

“meet me in the library Tuesday”

? ? ?

The use of a gun, knife, and bomb emojis in a message regarding her school’s library were deemed enough by Fairfax police to charge the girl with a criminal offence, after staff at Sidne Lanier Middle School were made aware of its content on 14th December, 2015. Due to her age, the police and courts has not released the identity of the girl.

“She’s a good kid. She’s never been in trouble before,” the girl’s mother said. “I don’t think it’s a case where there should have been charges.”

“I think something is definitely lost in translation,” defense attorney Pratt said, referring to the police misinterpreting the use of emojis by teens. “These kids are not threatening cops, they are just trying to say, ‘I’m tough.’ It’s posturing.”

“Emoji are new enough that people are finding their footing,” Tyler Schnoebelen, a linguist and founder of a company called Idibon, added. “Almost all of these cases have emerged in the past couple years. They are all going into fresh legal territory.”

Dalia Topelson Ritvo, Assistant Director of the Cyber Law clinic at Harvard Law School, thinks that the semantics of emojis are even more fluid and dependant on context and intent than words.

“You understand words in a particular way,” Ritvo said. “It’s challenging with symbols and images to unravel that.”

Despite the charges filed against the girl, a spokesperson for Fairfax County schools has called the alleged threat “not credible”.

Ashley Allen

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