Twitter’s Discriminating Emojis, And What It Shows About Tech

Update: Twitter changed their emoji policy on 10/11/2018 to address is issue.

A few weeks ago, I wanted to use the “Female Detective” emoji on twitter. When I did, I found my unused characters jumped from 3 to -2. Confused, I tried again. Same thing. I closed the tweet and rewrote it. Still there. I tried on mobile. Happened again. Then I tried “Male Detective”. Suddenly my character count was a perfect 140.

As all the engineers I’ve worked with will tell you, I love to poke at a bug and reverse engineer it, and this one seemed juicy. After experimenting, I found it’s not just our friendly detectives but many many more people emojis.

Here’s the character count for some of the emojis I found with this problem. I ran out of character limits so stopped here. It turns out more female emojis are being ‘taxed’ by requiring more characters. It’s not always a distinction between male and female, (turns out all farmers and judges are expensive to talk about), but it happens enough to see a pattern growing.

Then I tried race.

It turns out there’s an overall tax on having any race on twitter. When I tested this with the other skin tones, all paid a price for using a color, regardless of the color selected.

Wait so… did someone at Twitter decide they want less tweets about women and race and increased the character usage???

Unlikely.

But this is a perfect real life example of how technology itself can be biased and how those choices have real impact on people’s lives. Technology is built by people, and if we are biased, intentionally or not, we build those biases into our systems. The bug appears to be around new emojis that were, ironically, added to increase representation. The exact source is hard to identify from the outside. It looks as if how unicode writes their emojis might be at play, with twitter engineering team either not noticing the discrepancy or deciding it wasn’t a high enough priority to fix.

It’s likely a pretty innocent mistake, one based on efficiency and launch dates, but by not fixing it, they’ve chosen to limit free speech for the majority of people, despite consistently claiming that free speech is the core value of Twitter. And because of historical discrimination, people who have experienced discrimination in the past are likely to continue suffering it because undoing the work is hard and takes more effort. This is true in the real world as well as tech. Sometimes it’s hard to see in tech, but this emoji bug has offered a clear and concrete example of what that can look like.

Because women and minorities emojis weren’t represented before, they’re quite literally still getting penalized. We can look at countless examples of how this works throughout history. For the sake of it, let’s talk about women in the US.

If you were a woman before the suffragette movement, you couldn’t vote. Now you can. Great, so we’re all equal, right?? Unfortunately, not really. We can all vote, and yet because women couldn’t vote before, because they weren’t seen as autonomous beings, they also couldn’t serve in government. While women won the right to vote, that hasn’t fully eroded the idea that women aren’t capable of leading our country (and a whole lot of other contributing systemic factors). So 97 years after women fought and won the right to vote, our congress is still only 19% female, despite being 51% of the population. The historic effects of discrimination clearly don’t go vanish overnight. When fighting systemic discrimination that has led to historical privilege of another group, there are hundreds of smaller pieces to dismantle before the system stops discriminating. In our Twitter emoji bug, the team tried to fix the issue of under representation by providing new emojis, but they didn’t dismantle all of the smaller pieces that came around as a by-product of the original discrimination, like that white male emojis in careers are seen as the default.

This is why being aware of your own biases, and hiring diverse staff who don’t share your bias and can challenge them, is so key in tech. If Twitter, or any tech product, is serious about their lofty societal goals of free speech and open access, they need to challenge the systems that already exist that discriminate in our society instead of further institutionalizing them by perpetuating the problem.

When we try to fix inequalities that exist in our system, we’re not trying to take anything away from the people who were in it already. We’re trying to remove the penalty that exists on just being a person who historically has faced discrimination. Yes, when women won the right to vote, fewer men had the opportunity to be Congressmen. But that’s not removing their right, that’s removing their undeserved privilege. Making all emojis count for one character may consequentially mean that the default male emojis get used less, but that’s only because they’re now on equal footing.

Technology isn’t unbiased. It’s built by us, and all of our small decisions and short cuts create embedded biases that are harder to remove once programed in. It takes us all calling it out, holding technology companies accountable, and pushing back until these elements are fixed to make real lasting change. At the very least we could start with some #EmojiEquality.