Love ‘em or hate ‘em, those little cartoonish symbols are inextricably entrenched in our lives. They are now ubiquitous in our digital lexicon where 92% of the digital population incorporates an expressive symbol into two-plus trillion messages annually. One in five Tweets contains an emoji and more than 5 billion emojis are sent on Facebook messenger – daily!

Emojis first debuted back in 1982. Back then, they were ASCII emoticons but have since evolved into fairly elaborate visual expressions. Today, there are over 3,500 emojis represented in the standard Unicode. Guess which emoji is number one? Yup – everywhere around the world, the #1 emoji is 😂 “Laugh Out Loud” with its happy tears and a big smile. Well, maybe it’s #1 for everyone except Gen Z who have unabashedly and collectively decided that that emoji is just not cool anymore given that it is, “So Millennial.”

In fact, emojis are so prevalent in our culture that there’s even a dedicated “Emojipedia” site. The Oxford Dictionary even named “emoji” as the 2015 Word of the Year, so they’ve definitely been in the spotlight for some time now and they show no sign of waning. Every culture around the globe has embraced “speaking emoji.” Okay, that sounds fun and all, but how are emojis related to compliance and the work that we do here at Shield?

The challenge of interpreting Emojis

Ask anyone if they are crystal clear about the meaning of the emojis they receive. Guaranteed, the answer will be an emphatic, “No!” Is a string of seemingly random emojis gibberish or is there some deep-seated meaning behind using them in that order? Confusing at best. I 💡➡️? For those of you not fluent in emoji speak, that string of symbols translates to, “I know, right?” Asking your peers within your age cohort about the meaning of emojis is one thing, asking someone from another generation or culture is quite another. In fact, emojis mean different things across cultures and intergenerational differences also account for variable usage – as well as confusion. This suggests that emoji speak actually has different dialects.

Now that you’ve got that scenario playing out in your mind, think about how a compliance officer feels. Those who are tasked with interpreting E-Comms to snuff out nefarious behavior or the intention to commit market abuse are definitely not 😂. On the contrary, compliance officers are on the receiving end of a digital nightmare that’s not only playing out on multiple E-Comms channels – which is already a challenging problem to solve – but it’s playing out in every. Single. Text.

That’s right. For anyone trying to assess and maintain compliance with corporate policies and laws, it’s no laughing matter. Monitoring E-Comms for financial trades is inherently complicated as many brokers have opted to use their personal phones (which aren’t always monitored) and to DM (direct message) their clients via various channels like Instagram, WhatsApp, and so on. One tactic commonly used by market abusers is to switch languages within the same sentence to obfuscate interpretation of what’s being said.

How do you design a monitoring solution? You need one that can make sense out of texts like: 💣the market to❌that 👿client but 🙊. It sounds like there is a retaliation being planned at the financial expense of an unpleasant client and that whoever texted this wants to keep the pending activity a secret. As a compliance officer, this is exactly the kind of worrisome behavior being monitored to detect and interrupt before it progresses to a committed act.

Workplace intelligence loosely translates to, “Good-bye risk and hello, reality.” Financial firms are desperately seeking clarity around E-Comms. Employees, brokers, and clients want that clarity, too. The challenge, or at least one of the issues we are attempting to overcome, is that the data are scattered across the enterprise. Some of that data is stored on unapproved personal devices, making monitoring even more difficult.

Emojis can mask nefarious behavior

They seem so innocent; those happy or sad little yellow faces and funny little symbols 🍑 interjected into our texts can bring a lot of joy. And a lot of consternation. Incorporating emojis into a text masks abusive behavior according to recent research. Non-compliant behaviors, be it illicit insider trading, sexual harassment, or racist statements often go undetected. The study showed that after the Euro 2020 Final, thousands of racist Tweets were posted: however, those that contained an emoji were three times less likely to be shut down.

Bad actors have been hiding behind the obfuscation superpowers of emojis for some time. But the jig is up! Shield has developed an advanced technology that can monitor, detect, report, and alert on non-compliant behaviors and the intention to commit market fraud. It’s all about de-risking E-Comms for our clients where emoji speak has exacerbated the difficulty of detecting non-compliant behavior.

Just think about the volume where billions of texts are sent daily. Added to that complexity is heightened regulatory pressure, the now-universal standard of remote work environments, and the proliferation of e-Comms channels. All these drivers are forcing financial services companies to take a more proactive approach to monitoring emojis. But it’s not easy. Malintent is easily obscured hiding behind a smiley little yellow face.

Emojis are everywhere – including case law

Each year, emojis become even more prevalent: not just in our texts, but in our Courts. Back in 2004, the first court case was published. Since then, there has been a proliferation of civil and criminal cases litigated. Cases have ranged from illegal trading to sexual harassment and murder – all defended or prosecuted by demonstrating malintent through emojis. But the results are a toss-up; it seems that the defendant has about a 50-50 chance of having their attorney successfully beat the wrap and an equal chance of being summoned to court for innocently using emojis the wrong way. Given the rising ubiquity of emojis in business communications, financial firms should carefully consider developing clear policies around if, how, and when emojis can be acceptably utilized.

Because monitoring E-Comms with text that interchangeably switches dialects, across multiple channels, and on unapproved devices wasn’t already challenging enough, the ambiguity of expressive characters adds a whole new dimension of vagueness. For compliance officers, it is black or white; there is no room for grey.

The industry isn’t accustomed to monitoring and interpreting content that has multiple meanings and where a message renders differently depending on which device it’s viewed on. That’s a whole lot of “extra” that compliance officers find decidedly not funny. Did the sender of the emoji e-Comms message intend to be abusive or did the receiver simply misconstrue the meaning because it rendered differently on their device?

Talk about a slippery slope! The American Bar Association warns that litigators should be aware of how complex this mostly unchartered territory is. Lawyers – and their defendants – need to understand that non-textual e-Comms can be damaging and confusing for jurors and judges to interpret. Workplace intelligence is embracing an advanced level of sophistication to navigate e-Comms that are highly subjective and open to wide interpretation. Nobody wants to be “that guy” that screams, “Wolf” one too many times. Conversely, nobody wants to find themselves out of work and in court defending why they called 🐂💩 on something that their boss did.

Workplace intelligence enables the future workplace

Detecting market abuse after the fact is one thing. Identifying the intention to do so before it actually happens takes workplace intelligence far beyond the contemporary standards of market abuse detection and reporting. Financial firms need to uplevel their technology and practices to meet the future of work – which is already here. COVID showed us that work is no longer restricted by formerly conventional boundaries and the days of a compliance officer “walking the floor” to snuff out bad behavior have gone the way of the Palm Pilot.

Today, people communicate in hundreds of dialects across dozens of platforms. Even emojis have cultural and contextual meanings. It’s a brave new world out there, the key is understanding the meaning behind emojis. Predicting if, and when, market abuse will happen is the next frontier.

🙏➡️👤 for your⏰ – which translates to, “Thank you for your time.” I hope that you had fun reading this and learned something, too.