Yellow emojis are associated with white ethnicity rather than being perceived as neutral, new academic research has found.

The study, carried out at the University of Edinburgh, is the ‘first’ to examine how people infer aspects of another person’s identity based on their use of emojis.

Nearly 500 participants – half self-identifying as black and half as white – were shown text messages, some of which contained yellow emojis while others included a darker or lighter skin-toned emoji.

Yellow emojis were not seen as neutral by either black or white reader groups. Among black participants, 56 per cent saw yellow emojis as more likely to signify white identity, while the figure for white participants was 63 per cent.

Researchers found that darker – and lighter-toned emojis were clear indicators of the sender’s ethnicity. Including a darker-toned emoji caused both black and white reader groups to select a black author 80 per cent of the time. Similarly, including a lighter-toned emoji resulted in 80 per cent of readers choosing a white author.

Readers could not agree on author identity for messages with no emoji, with 50 per cent of both groups rating these messages as having a black author, while the other 50 per cent chose a white author.

Previous studies have shown that people use skin-toned emojis as a way of representing their own identity. These became widely available in 2015, but little was known about how people perceive and interpret the emojis used by others.

Researchers say it appears emojis can change how people perceive the information that is provided in a similar way to how people speak can reveal information about a person’s identity.

Their results also highlight that even supposedly neutral options can carry social meaning, which may advantage some groups over others. The team hope that by highlighting this issue they may help to inform the development of technologies better able to take these factors into account.

Dr Alexander Robertson from the University of Edinburgh’s School of Informatics said: “That people appear to use emojis both to express their own ethnicity and to understand the identity of others undoubtedly affects how they react to content containing emojis. This could influence things like how likely they are to believe or share certain content with others. Further research could offer important insights into sociolinguistics and areas like the spread of disinformation.”

The study, currently available as a pre-print, will be presented at the 24th ACM Conference on computer-supported cooperative work and social computing. It was funded by UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.