missing emojis on Samsung Galaxy S8

Find the Missing Gay Emoticons on Samsung’s Galaxy S8

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After the debacle of Samsung Electronics’ combusting Galaxy Note 7, the company’s latest phone — Galaxy S8 — appears to have been launched successfully. Despite reports of minor technical defects, the reviews of the product have been positive, and pre-order sales of the S8 and S8+ have been Samsung’s highest ever.

But the S8 contains a change that most reviewers and users might not notice at first: the removal of emoticons that show couples kissing mouth to mouth, in reflection of Samsung Electronics’ squeamishness toward homosexuality.

Back in March, the Kookmin Ilbo, a right-of-center South Korean newspaper, assailed Samsung Electronics for introducing in a software update of the Galaxy S7 14 emoticons that depicted same-sex relationships. (A foundation controlled by several Protestant churches owns the paper.) The article argued that the emoticons, such as “pictures of male-male and female-female couples kissing, and of same-sex couples with children or forming families, lead [users] to unconsciously perceive homosexuality as mainstream culture.”

An LGBT rights organization decried on Twitter Samsung Electronics’ move to change the kissing emoticons as “a policy of submission to certain conservative Christian organizations.” The picture on the left highlights some of the emoticons that the Kookmin Ilbo asserts are normalizing homosexuality. The picture on the right highlights the emoticons depicting same-sex kisses, which have since been changed, along with the one for the opposite-sex kiss.

Samsung Electronics reportedly denied at first that the company had a choice on which emoticons to install on its phones. When the Kookmin Ilbo refuted that claim, the company rep then told the paper, “We are trying hard to find out from the development team whether it’s possible to install only certain emoticons [on the phone].” The anonymous Samsung rep reportedly added, “We share the feeling that we should take into consideration Korean culture since every country has cultural difference.”

It seems that Samsung Electronics really cares about Korean culture and cultural difference.

On one Galaxy S8 that Korea Exposé checked, the three emoticons that show couples of different sexual orientations kissing mouth to mouth were missing. (The opposite-sex couple kissing is also among the emoji victims.) The Kookmin Ilbo smugly reported the change by quoting a Samsung Electronics rep who said the move had come in response to the “Kookmin Ilbo’s healthy concern.” The rep added, “We tried our best to reduce the ‘homosexual code.’”

Actually, the kissing emoticons aren’t completely gone; the graphic illustrations — as graphic as two emoji-people kissing can be — have been replaced by more cartoonish-looking couples puckering their mouths but not touching, with a heart between each couple. This still includes same-sex couples.

new emoticons on Samsung Galaxy S8
The offending same-sex kisses have been replaced by more innocuous emojis on the Galaxy S8. But that said, the opposite-sex kiss emoticon to the left has also undergone a similar change.

(We also checked a Galaxy S7 phone, which no longer has the offending emoticons; they have been replaced by the same ones that have shown up on the Galaxy S8.)

If the change is really the result of the Kookmin Ilbo’s objection to homosexuality, then it conforms to Samsung Electronics’ practice of curtailing LGBT contents on its phones.

In 2015, the company came under fire for refusing to allow gay dating apps in its own app store, formerly known as Samsung Apps and now called Galaxy Apps. As reported by Buzzfeed, in 2013 Samsung Apps declined to offer an app called Hornet to users in some countries, including South Korea. The reason? “Due to the local moral values or laws, content containing LGBT is not allowed,” reads a memo Samsung Apps apparently sent to Hornet.

At the time of publication, several popular gay dating apps such as Hornet, Grindr, Jack’d and Scruff weren’t available in the Galaxy Apps store, at least when accessed from South Korea. Google Play, a different app store available on Samsung phones, however offers them even for South Korean users.

It’s not to say Samsung Electronics bans all LGBT contents. A quick search on Galaxy Apps with the keyword “gay” revealed several apps including “Chinese Gay Chat,” “Gay Daddies Chat” and “3D Gay Pride Live Wallpaper.”

The Samsung Electronics PR team told Korea Exposé, “[The new emoticons] should be understood as a change in design. It happened in the course of accommodating feedback.”

Se-Woong Koo earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University and taught Korean studies at Stanford, Yale, and Ewha Women's University. He has written for The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera among other publications.