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Emoji anti-bullying campaign fails to address actual issue

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In Apple’s most recent software update for the iPhone, the company included almost two hundred new emojis for the iPhone messaging app. One emoji in particular has garnered a lot of attention in the past few weeks – the black icon that resembles a stylized eye superimposed over a speech bubble. Back in September, there was speculation as to the purpose of this bizarre symbol, but no consensus appeared until recently. Although Apple did not release any formal statement as to the emoji’s intended meaning and use, numerous organizations have connected it to the newly formed I Am A Witness campaign, of which Apple is a significant supporter.

I Am A Witness, a campaign founded to help raise awareness and fight cyberbullying among teens, went public at the same time the new update was released. In fact, this online organization centers directly around the new emoji and the way in which it can be utilized to combat online instances of bullying.

“When you think about it, the emoji gives teens a way to say something when they don’t know what to say.” Lisa Sherman, the organization’s CEO said, in an interview on All Tech Considered, a weekly series on NPR.

Ultimately, the campaign attempts to make it easier for friends to reach out to victims and express messages of support through the same medium as the bullying itself. Now available on both iPhone and Android devices, the witness emoji has begun to insert itself into our cultural vocabulary.

It is the campaign’s attempt to shape our use of the new emoji that I find so troubling. While any attempt to provide support for victims of bullying is laudable in its own right, certain aspects of the I Am A Witness campaign prevent from me embracing this new movement.

When I first heard about the emoji, I was cautiously optimistic. I didn’t expect any revolutionary changes to the pressures that victims of bullying face on a daily basis, but I saw the new emoji as a step in the right direction. However, after browsing iwitnessbullying.org, the campaign’s website, I’m not sure I can say even that.

The website’s most striking feature is its introductory video, a short narrative that follows a day in the life of Jack, a young student and a victim of bullying. At periodic moments in the animation, Jack would suffer some abuse, and the icon would pop up on the screen, prompting me to click the emoji and help Jack out. Needless to say, I did so. Suddenly the tone of the film changed, the bullies turned kind and Jack’s day got that much better, all with the click of a button.

It’s this sense of ease that I Am A Witness focuses on. The emoji is a stand-in for other types of support, something accessible and easy that caters to distanced bystanders. I worry that this simplicity of message goes too far and thus trivializes the damage that bullying of all types inflicts on its victims. If I were to make use of this emoji, it’d take less than a moment out of my day, yet I’d feel that I had done my duty and could turn back to whatever I was doing before. The approach that this emoji and the larger campaign espouse ignores the depth of emotional investment that meaningful support demands.

Additionally, the witness campaign fails to add any new sense of accountability or investment into the online cultures that it is attempting to improve. While I can recognize that the emoji provides a way for people to express support for one-another, I can’t see it adding anything that wasn’t already present. People have always had the ability to reach out to one another in any number of manners, with or without emojis. Bystanders choose to be bystanders because they don’t want to be involved, not because there isn’t a one-click solution right in front of them. Simply repackaging support doesn’t make people more likely to supply it.

To be clear, I don’t criticize the witness campaign for centering their efforts around this particular symbol. Icons can be powerful; they can take on a life outside of their original medium and context. However, this emoji is best looked at as a reminder of the presence of online cruelty, rather than as a means of addressing it. To do that, we must be willing to engage on a scale much larger than simply a three-inch keyboard.

John Seabloom-Dunne (seabloom@stolaf.edu) ’16 is from Roseville, Minn. He majors in English and ancient studies.