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Emoji Diplomacy

World Emoji Day and storytelling via round smiley faces, thumbs up, and flags.

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And for instance, according to Mark Zuckerberg, the most popular emojis on Facebook —and by countries —are:

Many countries have been experimenting beyond flags and very recently, for the last G20 summit in Hamburg, the German government posted a funny quiz on the official Bundesregierung’s Facebook page.

“Can you guess the country?,” the post asked.

Each of the 19 countries — the European Union is the 20th member of the G20 — is represented by a set of four emojis.

For example, the United States (1) is identified with 🏈🗽🤠🌭: a football, the Statue of Liberty emoji, a cowboy hat, and a hotdog; Canada (13) with a 🍁🏒⛷🏕: maple leaf, a hockey puck and stick, the skiing emoji, and a tent under the stars; China (6) with 🐼🐉🏓🚲: a panda bear, a dragon, a ping pong paddle and ball, and a bicycle; the United Kingdom (8) with ☂💂👑🧐: an umbrella, a British royal guard hat, a crown, and a monocle.

Can you guess the others?

In June I asked on Twitter:

Hi everybody: What emojis would you use to represent #digitaldiplomacy ⁉️ 🌍🌎🌏 #socialmedia #emojis

A few tweeps responded:

* Alejandro said: 🗺️🤝📲

* Cristina: 📱📲

* Mehni: 🤹🏽‍♀️🤹🏽‍♂️📲

Are emojis ridiculous or ridiculously engaging?

“It’s easy to dismiss emoji,” wrote Adam Sternbergh in a New York Magazine article in 2014. “They are, at first glance, ridiculous.”

Sternbergh described emojis as “a small invasive cartoon army of faces and vehicles and flags and food and symbols trying to topple the millennia-long reign of words.”

And yet, emojis have become a daily occurrence for many of us. Consider for instance the use of reaction emojis on Facebook — even on 360 videos within the Gear VR’s video app — and how they have transformed the way we interact with posts, beyond the simple thumbs up emoji.

Indeed, emojis are now part of our everyday life. So much so that in 2015, for the first time ever, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year was an emoji: 😂

Officially called the Face with Tears of Joy emoji, 😂 “was chosen as the ‘word’ that best reflected the ethos, mood, and preoccupations of 2015.” The emoji won over other shortlisted words like ‘sharing economy’, ‘dark web’, ‘ad blocker’, and even ‘refugee’ and Brexit’.

View this video on YouTube

Using emojis to make politics and foreign policy more approachable and to target and engage a younger audience is not new nor out of the ordinary.

Even former US President Barack Obama mentioned emojis in an official speech during a state visit in Washington DC of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

“Today is also a chance for Americans — especially our young people — to say thank you for all the things we love from Japan,” Obama said in April 2015 from the podium on the South Lawn of the White House. “Like karate, karaoke, manga, anime and of course, emojis.”

In his upcoming book The Emoji Code: The Linguistics Behind Smiley Faces and Scaredy Cats, professor Vyvyan Evans compares the reach of emojis to that of the English language.

“Today, the ubiquitous influence of English in a wide array of global communication contexts is staggering: from commerce to diplomacy, from aviation to academic publishing, English serves as the global lingua franca,” he writes. “But here comes the undiplomatic put-down; in comparison, Emoji dwarfs even the reach of English.”

Research conducted by professor Evans in the UK shows that around 80% of adult smartphone users between the age of 18 and 65 “regularly use emojis in their text messages” while about 40% have sent text messages “paradoxically, without text, containing emojis alone.”

Starting in 2013, Matthew Rothenberg, an independent artist and hacker from Brooklyn, NY, has tracked almost 20 billion — and counting — tweets containing emojis. His, named Best Emoji Analyzer of the Year in The State Of Digital Diplomacy 2016, reveals what emojis are trending at any given time.

Interesting facts (as of July 10, 2017):

* 😂 is the most popular with over 17.5 billion tweets;

* 🇺🇸 is the most used flag with 13.6 million tweets and 🇫🇷 is the second most used flag with 4.8 million, followed by 🇬🇧 🇮🇹 🇪🇸 🇩🇪;

* ♻️ (which we associate with the environment?) is among the top 10 most popular emojis;

* 🌎 🌍 are the two most used earth globes with 1.4 million tweets each.

“Ultimately, whatever the metric, the adoption rate of Emoji is staggering,” professor Evans writes in his book. “And this provides grist to the mill that Emoji is a truly global form of communication.”

After all — Evans adds — no matter what our mother tongue is, “the smiley face means the same thing in every language.”

We are all, or nearly all, ‘speaking’ emoji now.

Emojis for diplomacy

According to India Bourke of the New Statesman, “in many ways, emojis are the promised land of diplomatic history: they have the potential to speak across borders to a new, global citizenry. They are the Esperanto of the digital age.”

She adds, however how “emojis can also tend to the crass and immature” and their meanings and interpretations be overly limiting and hazardously slippery.

Despite that, many heads of state or government, foreign ministers, and diplomats, use emojis regularly. And even Malala Yousafzai, which debuted on Twitter this month, has started to use emojis.

Hola, Presidente! I admire your work to bring peace in Colombia. Your country has some amazing girls too! They send…

And former head of UN Development Helen Clark recently used emojis on twitter, responding to former United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson’s first tweet.

@JanKEliasson 1st tweet & already 900 followers! Keep it up!! 🌹🌹

Indeed, like every digital form of communication, some are better than others at embracing it. And when it comes to the foreign policy community, there have been interesting experiments using emojis.

In February 2015, Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop — described by many as ‘emoji enthusiast’ — sat down with Mark Di Stefano of BuzzFeed for “the world’s first political emoji interview,” in which she described Russian president Vladimir Putin with 😡.

During the interview, Bishop also talked about Australia-US relations with 👍 ✔️ 😃; Australia-China relations with 👍 ✔️ 😎; marriage equality 👐; and winding down at home after a long day at work 📚 📀 📺. But everybody seemed to focus on the emoji she used to answer the Putin question.

“Her choice of a red-faced emoticon to describe Putin did not go down well with her country’s Senate: what exactly was she using it to infer, they demanded to know?,” Bourke explains referring to the uproar that the emoji used by Bishop created and how it opened up to many interpretations.

Bishop went even further a few weeks later when, in a nationally televised interview she brought emojis to life and responded to a question: “I’m going to answer in emoji,” she said before pulling a baffled face and shrugging her shoulders.

2015 appeared to be an interesting emoji year also for Argentinian president and social media powerhouse Mauricio Macri. In December that year, shortly after his election, Macri posted on Facebook the entire list of his proposed cabinet.

And he used emojis for every cabinet position.

Facebook: mauriciomacri

In naming Susana Malcorra as his foreign minister, he used the following emoji: 🚻

Earlier in 2015, the British daily The Guardian posted a translation into emojis of Obama’s State of Union address — while launching at the same time the Twitter handle @Emojibama.

“Barack Obama said his address to Congress this year was all about ‘finding areas where we agree, so we can deliver for the American people’,” The Guardian wrote. “And if there’s one thing we can all agree upon, it’s emojis,” The Guardian continued.

💩 for diplomacy?

Now, if we look at the full list of emojis — a total of 2,666 in the Unicode Standard as of June 2017 — there’s at least one that might not look appropriate for diplomacy: what I call the poop emoji or 💩.

And yet, together with 🚽, it was featured quite successfully in the November 2016 #WorldToiletDay campaign by the World Health Organization.

Over 1 billion people 💩 in the open due to lack of proper 🚽 facilities #WorldToiletDay

Emojis for country branding

One country has gone the extra mile in the use of emojis: 🇫🇮 Finland.

Finland is in fact the first country in the world to publish its own set of country-themed emojis — launched, also in 2015, by the Finnish ministry for foreign affairs. According to, an online portal produced by the foreign ministry and published by the Finland promotion board, “the Finland emoji collection contains 56 tongue-in-cheek emotions, which were created to explain some hard-to-describe Finnish emotions, Finnish words and customs.”

They even include some emojis related to the role of Finland in the international community with the ‘peacemaker’ emoji (inspired by the work of former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari), and as a pioneer in gender equality, as it is the first country in the world to give women both the right to vote and stand for election in 1906, with the ‘girl power’ emoji.

“Finland emojis were initially released with the wish to convey that Finland is not only functional but also fun, as well as digitally savvy,” says Petra Theman, director for public diplomacy at the foreign ministry in Helsinki. “We have been overwhelmed by the amount of awards, suggestions for cooperation, including commercial use of the emojis, and by all the ideas sent to us. This has certainly been a fun addition to everything else we do in order to convey things you should and shouldn’t know, according to our motto.”

As Finland’s emojis are not encoded by Unicode, a consortium that officially catalogues emojis and standardizes computer coding for characters in different languages, they are not available as true emojis on a smartphone. They are however available as images — or more appropriately as ‘stickers’ — to be used in text messages and chats.

Two of Finland’s stickers — although modified — become official emojis earlier this year: 🧖 (sauna) and 🧦 (socks).

From @metroottawa: 🇨🇦 government launches Twitter emoji for #Canada150

Another interesting country branding campaign that is using emojis was launched by the government of Canada on Twitter for the 150th anniversary of the country in 2017.

Throughout the year, the official logo of the 150th anniversary will show up on Twitter attached to hashtag #Canada150.

According to Metro Toronto, it is Canada’s first ever Twitter emoji campaign and “was included in a paid marketing and advertising package.” The hashtag emoji, which will run until December 31, was designed by Twitter and it was based off of the official logo.

Hashflags — as hashtag emojis are often referred to— and branded emojis like #Canada150, in addition to being an expensive and powerful ad product that Twitter sells to advertisers, are also randomly enabled by the platform for a wide range of events from political, religious, entertainment, and sporting — and they are active only for a short period of time.

According to Tammy York of Odyssey: “hashflags were first mentioned back in 2010 for the World Cup, and reintroduced to Twitter for the World Cup in 2014. It wasn’t until the launch of Star Wars hashflags in April 2015 that they really started picking up steam.”

The 2016 Olympic Games have been quite an interesting hashflag and Twitter emoji experiment. As reported by The Next Web, “because all modern promotions now need their own emoji,” Twitter invested heavily both before and during the games “making available not one, not two, but two-hundred-and-sixty-two emoji for the Olympics.”

While the majority of the Olympic emojis were national flags that could be activated by hashtags with three-letter country codes (for example #USA would generate 🇺🇸), 54 emojis were symbols for each sport or Olympic-related iconography triggered by hashtags.

While the 2016 Olympics signaled perhaps the largest release of event-related hashtag emojis by Twitter, a popular set was made available for Pope Francis’ visit to the US in 2015, triggered by hashtags #PopeinUS #PopeinDC #PopeinNYC #PopeinPhilly.

Use these emoji to follow along as the #PopeInUS events unfold on Twitter.

“No matter where you are, we want to make it easy for you to follow right along with his [the Pope’s] journey,” reads a Twitter blog post. “We also wanted to offer a bit of fun to the proceedings, so today you’ll start to see special Twitter Emojis that celebrate his historic visit to the US.”

The Twitter handle @HashflagList is very useful to stay updated with new Twitter hashtag emojis or hashflags.

According to the company, “brands’ usage of emojis on Twitter and beyond has skyrocketed to the tune of a 461% year-over-year increase.”

“There’s a good reason why,” Twitter explains. “Those little smileys and hearts elicit warm and fuzzy feelings toward brands that use them, recent eMarketer research has found.”

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