Attorneys are having to argue for different meanings of the symbols, which may be used to convey emotions and indicate actions.
Emojis are most prevalent in workplace harassment and criminal cases. For example, receiving a heart emoji from your boss may or may not constitute sexual harassment.
“Someone who sends an emoji of a smiley face with a heart, which could be a common way of saying thank you, could be interpreted in a sexual way,” said legal analyst Steven Clark.
The symbols may appear differently across devices. On some phones, the pistol emoji looks like a real gun but on others it resembles a water gun or toy.
Part of the problem is that emojis are not considered a universal language. Clark said the meaning of an emoji tends to evolve over time just like language.
“A thumbs up emoji may have a different meaning five years from now,” he said.
Some symbols vary by culture, too. A smiley face emoji is viewed as sarcastic in China.
Using emojis as evidence in court cases may require expert analysis, Clark said.
“You may see people become emoji experts and testify in court across the country as to the variation of what these emojis mean on a regional or an evolutionary basis,” he said.
It’s an issue judges will need to prepare for as the number of reported cases with emojis used as evidence in the United States continues to rise.