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.
— Ashley Feinberg (@ashleyfeinberg) January 23, 2017
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 moment he realized. pic.twitter.com/NgNnQbeYfR
— Stevenson Waltien (@waltien) May 4, 2017
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).”
when you start to feel OK for a minute then remember that we’re all fucked pic.twitter.com/z6UeOOCEZZ
— Saladin Ahmed (@saladinahmed) May 25, 2017
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.