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A new record of emoji use on Twitter was reported in June 2022. The highest instances of emojis-per-tweet since records begin in July of 2011.  This year the Most Popular Emoji Award by Emojipedia for 2022 is Face Holding Back Tears 🥹. This non-verbal expression is said to “express a range of emotions including sadness, anger, embarrassment, admiration, and gratitude”. In second place followed Heart Hands 🫶, that are used to “express love and support”. Third in the ranking is the Melting Face 🫠 (introduced in 2021) that can be interpreted as experiencing extreme heat, but on a metaphoric level it talks to embarrassment, shame, or a slowly sinking sense of dread.

If emojis mirror the world that we live in, these non-verbal symbols are conveying non-verbal emotions focussed on amongst other, our health, the environment, and our well-being.

Over the past 11 years, the Face with Tears of Joy 😂 was the world’s most popular emoji.  The Face with Tears of Joy 😂 is widely used to show that something was funny or pleasing. In fact, in 2015, this specific emoji became the Oxford Dictionary Word of the Year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted on the use of emojis. It was perhaps a reflection of the global community’s state of anxiety in the still stretched-out aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic that Loudly Crying Face 😭 took the top spot-on Twitter in March 2021. 

The mental health sector embraced emojis as a simple way of reaching out when the very act of starting a conversation can feel extremely difficult. Several organisations created promotions drawing on the suitability of emojis to overcome communication difficulties. Facebook introduced the “care” emoji. The Hug Emoji 🫂 is presented as a smiley hugging a heart, as a way for people to share their support for one another during difficult times.

There has also been growth in the use of emojis as part of public health campaigns. Organisations applying the little symbols to assist with health communication and raising awareness. One of these original Japanese emojis was Face with Medical Mask 😷   – representing the standard practice in Japan and neighbours of the wearing of a face mask in public when you have a cold or the flu. As the use of face masks for COVID spread across the globe, the previously neglected mask-emoji surged in popularity.

Another COVID-related surge was in the use of the Microbe Emoji 🦠. Originally used to refer to germs in general, it has also been used to represent the coronavirus. Researchers feared that it might be a form of misinformation, because of the difference between a bacterium and a virus. The use of the Syringe Emoji 💉 also drastically changed over time. The relatively unused emoji was first associated with blood donation but has morphed in looks – less red – and meaning to represent increasing COVID-19 vaccination around the world.

Another spontaneous shift in emoji use during the COVID-19 pandemic was the rise in the use of the Folded Hands emoji 🙏 after a spike in infection rate in India in early 2021. Depending on the culture and religion, the hands can mean please or thank you (Japan), respect in Buddhist culture, or the Hands of Prayer as it is also known.

Originally a Japanese invention, the first emoji was designed by designer Shigetaka Kurita in 1999. Since then, billions have been shared every day on diverse social media platforms across the globe.

The Future Africa Leader Fellowship Programme (FAR-LeaF) is concerned with the health- environment-well-being nexus and takes cognisance of diverse forms of science communication for the purpose of countering misinformation.