Technology

How the political GIF is changing the face of modern election campaigns

Every few decades, a piece of technology comes along that alters political campaigning.

It happened in 1924 when Calvin Coolidge showed that he was a natural on the radio, which many historians believe helped him win the presidency.

Technology disrupted the presidential election again in 1960, during the nation's first televised debate, when John F. Kennedy, who was essentially an unknown senator at the time, destroyed Richard Nixon's presidential bid because Kennedy was telegenic and confident, and Nixon was not.

And it's happening again in 2016, although the technology in question is not some newfangled social media platform or a magic app for getting out the vote. It's the lowly animated GIF, which stands for Graphics Interchange Format.

So how on earth is the GIF going to change the election? Well, close your eyes for a few seconds and think about the moments that stand out so far in this US presidential campaign season.

Sure, there have been lots of memorable events from the debates and the stump speeches, but the ones that seem to have stuck in the popular consciousness have all been reduced to highly shareable, and fun, animated GIFs.

Among the most popular could be called the Trump Faces GIF (see above), which featured Donald Trump contorting his face into a dozen different shapes during the second Republican debate hosted by CNN last September.

Reacting to Jeb Bush's comment that Americans would not want "such a hothead with the nuclear codes," Trump is seen rolling his eyes, raising his eyebrows, mocking surprise, feigning laughter and otherwise exuding smugness.

It's an image that made Trump seem funny and even likable. As a CBS News employee noted on Twitter: "Donald Trump just did every emoji face on your phone in 7 seconds." (Others have also compared Trump's "resting smug face" to Benito Mussolini's.)

Trump has also appeared in dozens of other viral GIFs, comically slapping hands with Jeb Bush, swatting away opponents with his hands and, of course, making countless funny faces. One online publication has called Trump the most "GIF-able politician ever."

Democrats have had their share of GIFs, too.

During the select House committee hearing on Benghazi in October, Hillary Clinton paused to brush a little piece of lint off her shoulder. The four-second moment (which in the past would have been lost in the stream of 24-hour television punditry) became immortalised as a popular GIF, shared by supporters to illustrate how deftly Clinton handled her Republican critics. (Clinton's campaign even posted the GIF to Twitter during the third Republican debate.)

What GIFs offer (as with radio and television before it) is another window into the candidate's persona that is somehow more human and authentic than conventional stump speeches and sit-down television interviews.

"These miniature movies give you a sense of a candidate, so you can laugh at, or joke with, them," said Harper Reed, the former chief technology officer for Obama for America, who was instrumental in pioneering new technologies for modern-day elections. Reed added that GIFs allow candidates to show a warmer, more likable side to voters.

So why has the animated GIF, which has been around since 1987, suddenly become relevant? Until recently, GIFs were difficult to create. Now, there are hundreds of apps that allow people to easily make and share them. In addition, Twitter, the social media platform that is arguably most popular among politicos, did not enable people to embed animated GIFs until June 2014.

Moreover, GIFs have enjoyed a renaissance in popular culture, seamlessly shared on smartphones, laptops and tablets, and by major celebrities like Drake and Kim Kardashian.

Julie Logan, director of brand strategy for Giphy, a search engine for GIFs, said that political GIFs have become so popular that the company has started "live-GIFing" the presidential debates, with GIFs edited and uploaded in real time.

"A good GIF is that moment of real emotion," Logan said, adding that when debates drag on for hours, seeing a great short clip of a candidate condensed into one moment moving over and over can be incredibly "humanising."

But in the same way that GIFs can humanise candidates, they can also make candidates appear less appealing. GIFs of Carly Fiorina often show her as emotionless and unsmiling, while GIFs of Bush often depict him as a bit goofy or awkward.