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Is WeChat's "cleaver" a death threat?In February 2021, the Chinese social-media platform WeChat released version 8 which changed the appearance of some 'emoji' images. But there was a problem:
- The release of version 8 was not simultaneous on all platforms. By June, iOS App Store and Huawei AppGallery both had version 8, but Google Play still had version 7 until mid-July (or longer on devices that aren't set to allow updates),
- and the old version 7 would display more 'violent' versions of some emoji.
So if a version 8 user selected the
[Cleaver] emoji, they'd see a clean knife---but, perhaps unknown to them, anyone reading their message on version 7 would see a nastier-looking cleaver dripping with blood.
If I'd been on WeChat's development team, I'd have suggested that the newer "less violent" versions of the pictures be given completely new codes, as we don't want the system to make anybody's message seem more violent on the receiving side than it looked on the sending side.
I'd been invited to a 200-member UK Chinese group chat during the COVID-19 pandemic and felt a couple of prominent company executives in the group were excessively ridiculing the difficulties of older people. I probably should have just left (even though I'd answered some computing questions earlier), but I tried to apply corporate-style "diversity and inclusion" recommendations to stay and question the ridicule---which led to my falling into a `posturing' trap when they made it look like I had to answer unrelated questions first, leading me to cite a Chinese law (which I had checked on a China government website but didn't include the link) and they said I made it up, I insult China, I am a racist and other "flame war" vitriol not traditionally expected of `professional' groups; one of the messages sent before I left was from a business development director who said he'd give "anti-China rascals" absolutely no courtesy and a cleaver dripping with blood. I was concerned this might have been a threat to murder me.
Sending death threats in the UK can get 10 years' imprisonment under Section 16 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861; I didn't want that for him, but in fear of my life I did contact authorities suggesting a cautionary letter to his home. (This makes sense only in certain cases. You don't put a string knot around a bank lock: if a would-be murderer is stopped anyway by the barriers inherent to their plan, then the additional deterrence of a letter is not needed; if they're not deterred by those barriers then the letter is unlikely to work. That's probably why the 1861 Act allowed prison for the threat. The only time a letter might make a difference is if the inherent barriers are low, such as if they had easy access to deadly chemicals and/or know someone who does free assassinations as a favour, or if they're significantly bolstered by thinking the country has inept authorities. In this case I believed that if it is a death threat, and if it's credible, then that likely means the businessman had either a low barrier to action or a low estimate of UK competence, so a letter to show he would be found might be enough, while having comparatively little consequence on a false alarm if it can be done without alerting his company or damaging his record. I didn't know if a real criminologist would agree, but on balance felt I should ask.)
We do however have reasonable evidence that the sender was using iOS (he promoted the legally-risky Clubhouse app before it was available on Android; he might even have resented me in part because I'd told the group's self-employed consultants about Clubhouse's GDPR inquiries and indemnity clauses when he wanted `followers')---if he kept that iOS device up-to-date then he probably thought he was sending a clean knife, not a blood-soaked one. This fact likely reduces the threat level (a clean knife is more likely to be a metaphor than a blood-soaked one)---it might have saved worry if I'd checked for display differences earlier, which I hadn't because WeChat was supposed to normalise its emoji appearance across platforms.
Some may feel that even a clean knife is too threatening, and I am not able to advise on every case, but:
- I found messages on Chinese-language public forums that indicated some Chinese users understood the emoji either as general frustration or as fake anger or hyperbole,
- and 'frustration' is consistent with this case, where the cleaver was sent 8 minutes after an engineer said I'd not broken the group's rules. If questioning that, a knife could imply severing my membership not my head.
After I left the group, several individuals contacted me privately to say they felt the business development director had overreacted; they didn't want me to get the impression that all Chinese people are as unfriendly as him or the executives who'd cheered him on. But nobody mentioned the cleaver specifically.
I explained all this to the authorities I'd contacted, and they closed the case by writing on file that the image I'd seen was a technical fault. My full explanation was apparently too long for their form, so I'm posting it here on my website in case they need to find it later. Hopefully these notes are also useful to others, but nothing is legal advice.
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