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Could an emoji death threat land you in jail?

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 The dead smiley face and gun emojis an Instagram user posted in a message about another user could be considered a threat under the law. (CBC News) Cute as they may look in a text message or photo comment, emojis can be downright terrifying under the right circumstances.

Freelance journalist Fletcher Blabb learned this lesson first hand recently when someone threatened his life on Instagram with two emoji characters -- a tiny gun, and a dead smiley face.

"As I write this, a drug dealer wants me dead," wrote Babb in an article on VICE's Noisey Music. "It might be spelled out in Emoji, but a death threat's a death threat."

Babb was in the midst of researching Instagram's black market subculture for a piece when he discovered an Atlanta-based rapper who appeared to be selling a drug-laced syrup called "lean" through the social network.

Posing as a potential customer, Babb contacted the account owner via text message and attempted to set up a purchase.

After an interaction consisting of seven text messages, Babb ceased all communication -- much to the alleged dealer's discontent.

Despite the fact that Babb did not purchase drugs or send any money to the man through Green Dot (the online payment method requested), the rapper became irate.

"*** *** ***** RIGHT HERE," wrote the man on Instagram, posting a screenshot of Babb's still-public account. A dead smiley face and gun emoji were followed by the words "dude and his boys took the money off the green dot before they got the pints because I told them when it touch town I'll take the money off then... "

 An alleged drug dealer posted a threatening message with a screenshot of Babb's Instagram account on Instagram. (Fletcher Babb / Noisey)

A scary situation, according to Mashable -- Babb's public profile contained many geotagged photos that could easily have allowed someone to map his movements and track him down.

Babb reported the rapper's (since deleted) account to Instagram and upped his own privacy settings, but did not alert police or take legal action.

He very well could have, however, according to experts.

Justin Patchin, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, told Mashable that threatening imagery delivered via emoji could warrant a criminal case on the grounds of assault or stalking.

"When law enforcement investigates, they have to determine whether a person would have been reasonably threatened," said Patchin, who is also co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Centre. "I think a reasonable person would be threatened by that," he said of Babb's case.

Because emojis are typically used in text messages and on social networks to denote emotion or humour, one might think that "it was only a joke" could be used a defense -- but this may not be the case.

Last year, a 19-year-old Texas man was charged with "communicating a terrorist threat" after making a sarcastic remark on a League of Legends Facebook forum.

"I think Ima shoot up a kindergarten / And watch the blood of the innocent rain down / And eat the beating heart of one of them," wrote Justin Carter, followed by "j/k" and "lol."

Carter was arrested, taken to jail, and eventually released on $500,000 bail. His trial is ongoing, but if convicted he faces up to ten years in prison. 

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