Emoji have become Twitter’s very own digital bumper stickers or laptop decorations. The tiny images next to your handle are yet another way to express yourself online.
An image is worth a thousand words, after all, and an emoji certainly adds more intrigue than explicitly stuffing your political preferences into your handle. Emoji are readily available and allowed (and searchable) in Twitter handles, and they are popping up everywhere.
Twitter emoji indicate who you are, who you want to be, and how you want others to think of you. But first you have to know what the emoji even mean, so we asked people who use the images in their online identities.
Here’s some of the most pervasive symbols floating throughout our Twitter feeds. Now you’ll be up to speed on what’s really going on in your notifications.
Meaning: Democratic Socialist
The rose emoji is the best representation for the symbol of the political group, Democratic Socialists of America, or DSA.
One user, Keith Spencer, who uses the rose in his Twitter handle, knows the long history of the red rose used for labor groups and social democrats. For him the emoji connects him to like-minded people.
“I thought it seemed like a good idea to help us find each other,” he said in an email. “It has the added benefit of being subtle enough that you can identify yourself as a socialist without, say, a random stranger noticing and then trolling you for it.”
Thomas Moore, a 20-year-old college student and self-proclaimed activist who has since changed his handle emoji from a rose to a red balloon, said he had put the rose in his handle for its meaning beyond DSA, “The fragility of the rose represents the concern for the welfare of the downtrodden, its petals are symbolic of the ever growing following the movement has.”
The Democratic Socialists of America have embraced the rose emoji to match the group’s logo and identity.
Meaning: Special, fragile, hypersensitive but also unique and strong in numbers
The snowflake emoji is harder to pin down. “Snowflake” has been used for years as an insult to both the left and right. But through the 2016 election to today it’s had something of a resurgence to mostly describe a perceived weaker, emotionally needy and “special” Snowflake Generation.
While it’s long been used by conservatives as an insult to liberals and progressives (just look at right-wing commentator Tomi Lahren’s Snowflake Awards, which “honored” Meryl Streep), it’s more recently been repurposed by the very people it’s supposed to offend. Liberals have taken the term and flipped it.
Author and activist Rebecca Solnit, who coined the term “mansplaining,” wrote a “defense of snowflakes,” explaining how when snowflakes come together they can accomplish a lot. “Individually snowflakes are exquisite; together they are superpowers,” she wrote.
Here are some examples of people proudly repping the snowflake on Twitter:
I accidentally wore a shirt to work that has a hole in the elbow, so please no one look at my elbows
James (@CutlassJames) May 31, 2017
Can I take a moment to mention just how fantastic and also ironic it is that Trump is taking Fox “news” down w/him on way out the door?
Keithb (@AUkeibro) May 30, 2017
A segment of the resistance has affiliated themselves with Lady Liberty. One Twitter user who has since changed their handle wrote that the emoji is “code for ‘what if immigration is good?'” Other pro-immigration and open borders supporters have used Lady Liberty in their online names in the months since Trump was elected. It’s one of several emoji that stand for anti-Trump sentiments and might be the closest thing to a #Resistance emoji.
Glass of milk
Meaning: Member of the alt-right and white nationalist
For someone like white nationalist Richard Spencer, using a seemingly innocuous icon like a glass of milk works to represent a certain viewpoint until everyone starts to know what it means.
Spencer had put a glass of milk in his Twitter handle earlier this year as an ironic symbol of white supremacy. Through some very racist logic, milk came to mean all things white nationalist based on an article about Europeans being mostly lactose tolerant and able to handle drinking milk.
Spencer wrote to us through Twitter, explaining what the milk symbol meant to him. “The story, as I understand it, is as follows…,” he wrote. “Some hysterical leftist literally argues that drinking milk is ‘racist’ because Europeans (& Central Asians) are lactose tolerant.” It appears Spencer is citing a Mother Jones article that looked into the U.S. dietary guidelines for milk and suggested they may be discriminatory since not everyone, like African-Americans, needs to drink as much milk as recommended.
Spencer continued, “Then some Alt-Right kids go publicly guzzle milk on Shia leBoeuf’s (sic) live stream HWNDU. Milk becomes ‘a thing.” He concluded, “Like Pepe, milk is now a symbol of white identity, both ironical and serious.”
The glass of milk lauded by the alt-right as their new accidental symbol, if only briefly was very reminiscent of how Pepe the Frog became a neo-Nazi hate symbol after it was transformed from innocent cartoon to meme to alt-right identifier.
Spencer quickly moved on from the racist milk icon and is already using another provocative emoji, most recently Pepe.
Why write an article about this? Very few people are ‘under attack’ by Greg Johnson that this is relevant outside your friends.
J. Ketch (@JKetch89) June 1, 2017
Meaning: Alt-right, MAGA supporters, and also Syrians and supporters
Many users with the glass of milk soon pivoted to the Syrian flag after Trump ordered an air strike in Syria in April. Spencer switched to the flag emoji, but in the past few weeks quickly changed to the “OK” hand gesture , which has been linked to “white power” (though it’s not as ubiquitous as Spencer would want the Anti Defamation League said the organization doesn’t recognize the emoji as not a hate symbol), and then back to Pepe the Frog. It’s fitting since the cartoon’s creator just killed off Pepe after he couldn’t bear that it had became a hate symbol.
If anything, the Syrian flag’s brief moment in white nationalists’ handles shows how quickly this subgroup switches out emoji for new symbols.
Months after the Syria strike, here’s someone who still had the flag in their handle. They posted that they are a supporter of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and retweet Infowars contributor Joseph Paul Watson, who jumped “off the Trump train” after Trump’s Syria attack in April.
you can not win by sidelining minorities.Thats why Assad won media propaganda.
Sunni Assadist (@JulienBaptiste4) June 1, 2017
Meaning: In solidarity with people harassed for how they identify
The paper clip is a digital stand-in for a safety pin, which doesn’t have an emoji yet. The safety pin is a way to show solidarity to victims of hate crimes and harassment. People wore pins post-Brexit and in the aftermath of the Trump election. This is the digital equivalent to show you are an ally.
Note the pre-announcement of his announcement – its like a reality TV show setup. Game show president.
Jough Dempsey (@jough) June 1, 2017
We all awake from marching? Time for step 2. Call your reps. Write letters. Donate to local and national orgs, if you can. Don’t. Stop. Now.
((IsaacRosenthal)) (@IsaacMRosenthal) January 22, 2017
Trump’s anti-establishment attitudes (we can’t forget about #DrainTheSwamp) have given rise to the derogatory term “globalist.” It’s based off an anti-Semitic term that apparently Steve Bannon has called Jared Kushner. The term comes from the conspiracy theory that Jewish people maintain financial control of the global economy. Trump supporters use “globalist” as a term of derision toward anyone they consider privileged elites, from both sides of the aisle.
Vox made a list of who usually gets slapped with the “globalist” label: “Most bankers, executives of multinational corporations, pre-Trump political leaders and donors in both parties, think tank staffers, intellectuals, and members of the media, all generally concentrated in cities, usually get the label too.”
You’ll see it online when people take back the term to ruin the intended effect. So like using a snowflake to minimize the power of the insult, the globe does the same thing for Jewish people and others proud of their political ideology and social status, usually more progressive liberals.
So many emoji
Semiotician Michael Mills, an administrator at SUNY Geneseo has found the use of emoji to mean something more in our online names. “It’s a way of expressing individuality,” he said in a phone call.
Your handle now represents a larger idea, which Mills said makes people feel included and part of the group. For ambiguous emoji, like a paperclip which has a more nuanced meaning beyond holding paper together, anyone who uses it feels like they are in on the “joke,” or “real” meaning.
Twitter doesn’t seem alarmed by the hidden meanings in people’s handles. The social media company said that as long as the name follows community guidelines all is well. If things cross over into “hateful conduct” then they will intervene. But if Twitter doesn’t know what an emoji really means, it’s hard to prove it’s hateful.
Sometimes someone just really likes cats, dogs, lightning bolts, and flowers. Or like with the frog image behind the Pepe phenomenon, an emoji becomes something politically charged for no real rhyme or reason. In fact, the frog emoji is cropping up again in recent weeks as something of a Pepe revival.
Emoji in handles aren’t going away anytime soon.
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