Last year, Apple added an emoji search bar to iMessage, a simple feature that lets users quickly sift through over 3,000 standardized emojis by typing associated key terms. For example, iPhone users can now locate the heart eyes emoji by searching “love,” or the loudly crying face by searching “sad.” But when people look up different geographic regions or countries, such as “China” or “Africa,” Apple’s emoji keyboard sometimes spits back recommendations that reinforce Western stereotypes about those places.
The term “Europe,” for example, frequently displays emoji suggestions for a globe, the European Union flag, the euro currency, a European post office building, as well as a football and castle. The term “Africa,” meanwhile, often only returns a globe, two country flags, and the hut emoji. The term “African” also displayed the hut emoji in tests. These results raise questions about biases that may be built into Apple’s language processing systems, though it’s unclear exactly how the emoji recommendations are generated. Apple did not return repeated requests for comment.
“I wouldn’t say the feature is racist, but incomplete,” says O’Plérou Grebet, an artist from Côte d’Ivoire who designed his own independent set of emojis after noticing there was little representation of Africa in the emoji alphabet. “There is nothing wrong with huts because there are people living in them, but it’s a problem when the only emoji is a hut, because it reduces the continent to huts, and this is what could feed racist stereotypes.”
Grebet says that Apple’s depiction of Africa reinforces the idea that the continent is poor, and promotes a monolithic depiction of an incredibly diverse region to iPhone users. Since November, a handful of users on Twitter have noted and complained to Apple about the “Africa” emoji search results. It’s not clear if they appear on every iOS device, but Rest of World has replicated the results using several different iPhones, language settings, and versions of the English-langauge keyboard.
This isn’t the first time Apple has been accused of encoding bias into its emoji products. In 2017, Apple’s predictive text feature, which often suggests emojis automatically as users type words into their keyboard, was criticized for generating all-male emojis for terms like “CEO” and “CTO.” Earlier this year, Instagram came under fire when the app showed users that typed “dog” the emoji for a Chinese takeout box, playing into racist stereotypes.
Both Apple and Instagram eventually altered their results, but each incident is an example of how societal prejudices can be unknowingly coded into seemingly neutral emoji-based features. In this case, it’s unclear whether Apple’s emoji search feature operates solely based on keywords and tags, or more complicated machine learning algorithms that adapt to user behavior.
The emojis Apple uses are pulled directly from Unicode, a consortium made of some of the world’s largest tech companies — including Google, Facebook, and Microsoft — that’s responsible for standardizing emoji usage across internet browsers, social media platforms, and devices. In addition to approving new entries to the alphabet, Unicode keeps an official list of word associations for each emoji. The hut emoji originated from a proposal that specifically linked it to under-representation of African culture, but according to a Unicode spokesperson, “Africa” is not listed as one of the official keywords for the emoji, suggesting this search issue is unique to iOS.
The emoji search results on iOS veer away from Unicode’s standard keywords for other geographic areas as well. In some tests, the term “US,” displays the emoji for throwing away trash (🚮). Jennifer 8. Lee, vice chair for the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee, shared screenshots of results for “China” with Rest of World. The first emoji on display, ahead of more obvious options such as the Chinese flag (🇨🇳), was a dog (🐕), followed by several animals that are also Chinese zodiac signs.
Rest of World was not able to replicate these exact results, though the dog emoji was often one of the first suggestions in tests it conducted. In one instance, the second suggestion after the Chinese flag was for the maple leaf emoji (🍁). These discrepancies suggest that iOS may personalize emoji results to some degree, though the specifics remain a mystery without further clarification from Apple.
The “Africa” search issue ultimately reflects deeper representation problems that date back to the very beginnings of the emoji project. “Apple could simply remove a keyword on their end,” says Jeremy Burge, founder of Emojipedia, an independent website that serves as the de facto online dictionary for the emoji alphabet. “There is a technical solution there, but should there just be more African emojis in general? Would it be less problematic if it were contextualized with other African-specific emojis?”
When Unicode officially launched the original emoji alphabet in 2010, it disproportionately represented a single country: Japan. “When you look at the emoji keyboard today, it is misleading. It feels like one cohesive set that somebody said is the right balance, and that’s just not the case,” says Burge, who also represents Emojipedia as a voting member of Unicode. “The reality is the first 400 or so emojis that existed were just made at the whims of designers in Japan.”
Emoji is originally a Japanese word meaning “pictograph.” In the early 2000s, mobile carriers across the country started designing the characters as fun add-ons to set themselves apart from their domestic rivals. That’s why there are more than 70 emojis that are specific to Japanese culture, including festival symbols (🎋), desserts (🍡), and even the vehicle sticker that indicates someone is a novice driver (🔰). Unicode pulled these hyper-specific designs into its international standard dictionary without much interrogation, creating what Burge calls a “weird Japanese-American hybrid.”
In the years since, Unicode has voted to address some representation issues by adding new emojis featuring people with darker skin tones, disability-related emojis, and representations of the LGBTQ+ community. But it hasn’t done as much work to expand representation of cultural artifacts and symbols. In fact, one of the most important criteria for getting a new emoji approved today is its potential popularity, usually defined as “high usage worldwide.” Under these new rules, those same Japanese emojis wouldn’t be approved today, according to Burge.
That has left Afrocentric designers like Grebet, the Ivorian artist, struggling to get their emoji proposals passed by Unicode’s voting bloc. In 2018, he launched an Instagram series called Zouzoukwa, in which he spent a year posting a new emoji design each day depicting West African food, music, clothing, and people. Unicode told Rest of World that it’s working closely with Grebet to develop formal proposals for his designs, but he says he hasn’t received a response or feedback on his submissions from 2019, including one for the gesture of pulling down one’s eyelid; one for mancala, a game using marbles; and one for the Hamsa, a hand-shaped pendant common in North Africa.
The hut emoji, submitted by American journalist Samantha Sunne, was approved in 2019. In her proposal, Sunne argued it would address the underrepresentation of indigenous architecture, especially that of Uganda, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Kenya, where similar types of huts can be found.
“My initial thought was, of course, the hut is what gets approved,” says Kerrilyn Gibson, an American designer who launched the #AfroHairMatters campaign in 2019 with Rhianna Jones to get emojis featuring Black and brown people with Afros and dreads added to Unicode. “I understand the relevance of that emoji as an architectural reference, but I don’t think that is the only thing that represents Africa or the African diaspora, and it’s in poor taste to not offer a broader representation.”
Like Grebet, Gibson submitted two proposals for Afro emojis, arguing the additions would better encompass the experiences of Black and brown people. They were both rejected. “I think it’s really important, especially for younger Black people, to be able to look at these emojis every single day and see something that looks like them,” Gibson says.