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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.

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.