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Smile for the camera: How one gif became a political weapon

If a picture speaks a thousand words, does a gif speak a million?

It was Ed Miliband who started it. On 1 June 2015, the ex-Labour leader returned to the backbenches for the first time in nearly eight years. Just 25 bitter days after losing to the Conservatives in the general election, Miliband leant back into the unfamiliar green leather and settled down for a House of Commons debate about football’s governing body, Fifa.

Then somebody caught his eye.

To this day, we don’t know who it was. But Ed dutifully turned and flashed them a second-long Wallace-sans-Gromit grin before resuming his business. It would’ve been inconsequential – were it not caught on camera.

The resulting Vines and gifs were the start of what can loosely be described as a trend. On social media, gifs of politicians smiling before their faces fall suddenly are immensely popular. Each snippet allegedly tells the story of a public figure’s true emotions – be it Melania Trump’s face falling after her husband turns away, Republican Paul Ryan growing serious after laughing about Trumpcare, or Michelle Obama grimacing when she receives a gift from the new First Lady. The implication of each can be summarised simply as: “Aha!”. Those who gif and share these moments assume they have captured a politician’s true emotions – that they have somehow caught them out.

There are, of course, many examples of the camera legitimately catching out politicians. Tony Abbott’s smile abruptly fell when he realised the radio station he was speaking to also had a camera pointed at him during his interview. Before this realisation, the then-Australian prime minister had been winking and smiling as a pensioner revealed, over the phone, that she had been forced to take up sex work to make ends meet.

“Gotcha!” footage and gifs are incredibly popular because they’re funny, but the “smile falling” gifs of Melania Trump, Michelle Obama, and Paul Ryan go viral because they allegedly tell a story. We assume that each clip reveals an inner secret about a public figure. Melania Trump must feel threatened by Donald Trump. Paul Ryan has either a) realised the camera is on him, or b) suddenly understood that repealing Obamacare was a mistake. Michelle Obama, obviously, hates the Trumps.

But can we really tell someone’s emotions from an out-of-context, second-long gif?

“Micro expressions are facial expressions of emotion that appear on the face for less than half a second, and usually because the person is trying to suppress that expression,” says Dr Mark G Frank, a professor of nonverbal communication and expert on the complexities of human facial expressions. Frank explains that we are only “around 55 per cent accurate” at reading micro expressions shown in a flash format such as a gif. When we see (non-micro) expressions in still photos we are 90 percent accurate at discerning emotions, but the accuracy drops when the person we are judging is moving or talking.

That said, Frank explains that it can be helpful to judge an expression when context is removed – as with in a gif. “It is often easier to make the judgment when the context is removed, because we often get caught up in the context,” he says. “If the person says they’re sad, we usually believe them and don’t attend so much to their expression, which may be a fake sad or even a suppressed joy, as in schadenfreude.”

The problem with judging a falling smile, however, is that our smiles naturally fall away. Most of our real smiles could be gifed to look fake, simply because they have to disappear at some point.

“The smile will come on with a particular rhythm,” explains Frank about natural, not fake, smiles. “The onset will be smooth, not irregular, the smile will be more symmetrical, and the muscles that surround the eye (orbicularis oculi) will also be activated, and will be synchronized with the lip muscles (zygomaticus major).”


With this information at hand, perhaps it would be possible to judge whether a politician was fake smiling from a gif. That doesn’t, however, mean it would be wise. Many social media users speculated that Melania was being abused after the smile gif circulated - an incredible presumption to arise from a second-long clip (though her later decision to favourite the gif on Twitter certainly does raise eyebrows). Perhaps Melania truly was in a mood in that moment, or perhaps her smile was naturally falling away. One Direction’s Liam Payne was forced to defend himself after someone similarly filmed his smile falling between photos with fans.

“Lots of people saying I was ‘faking’ smiles with fans yesterday… I usually find when ur taking a photo u don’t smile until somebody’s about to take the photo,” he tweeted in his own defence. “Sorry to disappoint but I don't walk around like this all day,” he added next to a grinning emoji, “That would hurt!”

Smiles, then, naturally disappear. For the time being, however, gifs of them won't. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon is betting on Brexit becoming real before autumn 2018

Second independence referendum plans have been delayed but not ruled out.

Three months after announcing plans for a second independence referendum, and 19 days after losing a third of her Scottish National Party MPs, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon booted the prospect of a second independence referendum into the heather. 

In a statement at Holyrood, Sturgeon said she felt her responsibility as First Minister “is to build as much unity and consensus as possible” and that she had consulted “a broad spectrum of voices” on independence.

She said she had noted a “commonality” among the views of the majority, who were neither strongly pro or anti-independence, but “worry about the uncertainty of Brexit and worry about the clarity of what it means”. Some “just want a break from making political decisions”.

This, she said had led her to the conclusion that there should be a referendum reset. Nevertheless: "It remains my view and the position of this government that at the end of this Brexit process the Scottish people should have a choice about the future of our country." 

This "choice", she suggested, was likely to be in autumn 2018 – the same time floated by SNP insiders before the initial announcement was made. 

The Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie responded: “The First Minister wishes to call a referendum at a time of her choosing. So absolutely nothing has changed." In fact, there is significance in the fact Sturgeon will no longer be pursuing the legislative process needed for a second referendum. Unlike Theresa May, say, she has not committed herself to a seemingly irreversable process.

Sturgeon’s demand for a second independence referendum was said to be partly the result of pressure from the more indy-happy wing of the party, including former First Minister Alex Salmond. The First Minister herself, whose constituency is in the former Labour stronghold of Glasgow, has been more cautious, and is keenly aware that the party can lose if it appears to be taking the electorate for granted. 

In her speech, she pledged to “put our shoulder to the wheel” in Brexit talks, and improve education and the NHS. Yet she could have ruled out a referendum altogether, and she did not. 

Sturgeon has framed this as a “choice” that is reasonable, given the uncertainties of Brexit. Yet as many of Scotland’s new Labour MPs can testify, opposition to independence on the doorstep is just as likely to come from a desire to concentrate on public services and strengthening a local community as it is attachment to a more abstract union. The SNP has now been in power for 10 years, and the fact it suffered losses in the 2017 general election reflects the perception that it is the party not only for independence, but also the party of government.

For all her talk of remaining in the single market, Sturgeon will be aware that it will be the bread-and-butter consequences of Brexit, like rising prices, and money redirected towards Northern Ireland, that will resonate on the doorstep. She will also be aware that roughly a third of SNP voters opted for Brexit

The general election result suggests discontent over local or devolved issues is currently overriding constitutional matters, whether UK-wide or across the EU. Now Brexit talks with a Tory-DUP government have started, this may change. But if it does not, Sturgeon will be heading for a collision with voter choice in the autumn of 2018. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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