How would you interpret a red-faced emoji if it were used to describe the leader of the Russian empire? The Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop has recently gained notoriety as an emoji-addict, after conducting the first ever political interview using only emojis. Bishop’s use of the furrow-browed, indignant man to describe Russia’s President Putin has attracted widespread acclaim and criticism, with politicians such as Senator Chris Back “pinching” himself as to whether foreign diplomacy has truly been denigrated to this level.
The little red man might be more appropriately used to describe a reaction to the next-door neighbour mowing his lawn at 8am on a Sunday morning. According Bishop, the angry-looking man could also be interpreted as a reflection of Russia’s ideological history and is something that she is sure Putin would be “delighted about.” Senator Brandis tried to clear this up during an estimates hearing, stating that the emoji was “plainly, not an expression of our relationship with Russia.” There are questions about whether the bold step was actually a demarche or just in friendly jest. This new ‘emoji code’ has developed into a new form of public diplomacy, aimed at involving an apathetic population of young voters in the political process.
Bishop’s use of emojis to describe Australia’s foreign relations has become something of a craze and began with Bishop re-tweeting a post with the love heart eyes emoji, before she spiralled downward into an emoji bender. There have been many enablers in this pattern of addiction such as the phone company OPPO, who recently released an app for an Australian emoji keyboard for Android, featuring a prawn, Vegemite and the Sydney Opera House.
Finland has seemingly taken a leaf out of Australia’s book, with its Foreign Ministry releasing 30 emojis of “important things associated with Finland” including a man and woman enjoying a sauna, a Nokia 3310 and a heavy-metal head banger. The new ‘Finojis’ have been met with mixed emotions. One reader of the Ilta-Sanomat newspaper pointed out that these stereotypes could be characteristic of many other countries in Nordic Europe.
Additionally, America’s presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, has made an attempt to connect with younger US voters in an exercise that has seemingly backfired. In an attempt to piggy-back off the roll out of her $350 billion college affordability plan, Clinton posed the following question to the Twittersphere: “How does your student loan debt make you feel, tell us in three emojis or less.” The responses were varied but general consensus was that Clinton’s tweet was an epic fail.
“This is like when your mom tries to be hip in front of your friends and totally fails at it.” – @GuilleCummings
This signals a change in tact by politicians, in a desperate attempt to lift young people out of the incumbent blanket of youth apathy. It also demonstrates the evolution of political constituent engagement. Politics was once an interest for only old, white men who smoked Cuban cigars in a Parlour room and theorised about colonial conquests in the Middle East and Africa. But this age of entitlement and privilege has passed, with young and old men and women from all echelons of society engaging in the political sphere.
Additionally, all of the dirty work of politics; embarrassing faux pas, corruption, inappropriate helicopter rides and a blow-away toupee are now able to be used as ammunition in smear campaigns instigated by the media. Hence, politicians have been forced to appeal to the broader society, through new public diplomacy.
This is where emojis come into the equation. The way politicians perceive the younger generation can be (seemingly) summarised in one simple equation:
Condescending use of Emojis + disengaged and simple-minded young people = votes.
The response has been something like this:
“You know what people who went to college can use? Words.” – @LouisatheLast
Julie Bishop is not the first of the ‘new cool kids’ on the social media bandwagon. This is not surprising, considering that the AEC estimates that about 20 per cent of adults 24 years or younger may not be registered to vote. Bill Shorten recently posted a photo of himself from his youth, with the caption, “a lot has changed over the years, but one thing hasn’t – you still need to enrol in order to have your say.” The litany of clueless attempts at youth appeal, whether it be Rudd-style selfies, Game of Thrones references or Abbott parading around his “not-bad looking daughters”, politicians are missing the point: young people don’t need to be condescended to be engaged.
A recent Fairfax poll by the Australia Institute reveals that rent and housing, university funding, same-sex marriage and climate change are the most important issues to young people. These issues do not need to be conveyed through emojis; they are compelling enough without having to be trivialised. While the government’s approach has merit, their instrument is inherently flawed. Asking a middle-aged, conservative politician to try to decode a young persons ‘emoji code’ does not translate into effective policy goals. Rather, it provides the illusion of involvement, further polarising young voters. To effectively involve voters, the government needs to look to more direct channels of communication, such as youth forums and summits, greater contact with educational institutions and social media engagement, which targets certain issues in a meaningful way.
In an age where Clive Palmer has resigned himself to ‘twerking’ in public and Putin has been characterised as an angry-faced emoji, nothing is sacrosanct. Yet, to engage young people, there must be meaningful dialogue on important issues. Hence, emoji diplomacy is no longer the new public diplomacy; it has already drifted into the social media gutter, alongside out-dated memes of Putin riding a bear.