Within minutes of the Republican presidential debate wrapping up on Fox on Tuesday night, and even while the debate was still underway, messages about who was winning and losing were already being crafted. Not just by the campaigns, mind you, but by news websites and social media users.
Many of those tweets and status updates include quotes. But the real weapon of choice lately is the animated GIF.
Not that long ago, TV and radio were criticized for creating what many media pundits and political analysts derided as a “sound bite” culture. Snippets of speeches or off-hand remarks were swiftly turned into news reports for 6 o’clock television shows, and that triggered the political spin doctors and reactions from the media.
Now, those days of TV and radio clips seem antiquated and slow-moving compared to the pace of today’s political news. The 24-hour news cycle has become a 10-minute news cycle. Now, all it takes is a shrug or a raised eyebrow during a debate to start the spin, as the gesture gets turned into animated GIFs that replay endlessly on Twitter and Facebook, thanks to the auto-play feature on both platforms.
The idea that political judgements will be made, and possibly campaigns won or lost, on the basis of something so trivial as a three-second animation might seem absurd, or disturbing. But it’s not really that different from earlier eras. A shot of presidential candidate Michael Dukakis looking awkward in a tank was widely believed to have helped torpedo his chances in 1988, and inappropriate remarks or photos that went public have done the same for others.
Some political observers believe that the first TV debates in 1960, involving Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, actually helped seal the impression that Nixon was a dubious character because his appearance on TV was so unimpressive. He was pale and sweaty, with bags under his eyes (in part because of a recent operation) and his hunched-over posture made him seem shifty, especially compared with Kennedy’s handsome visage.
All that’s really happened—as with so many other elements of the media, and public life in general—is that time has been sped up, so that everything happens much faster. The snap judgements now take minutes, not hours or days.
And in some cases, those animated GIFs can actually sum up something essential about the nature of the topic. During the recent Senate hearings into the Benghazi scandal, for example, a six-second GIF of Sen. Hillary Clinton looking exasperated and brushing lint from her shoulder while on the stand seemed to say far more about the hearings than any post-hearing analysis.
Presidential candidate Donald Trump, meanwhile, is a GIF creator’s dream come true: There are dozens, if not hundreds, of GIFs of his facial expressions during debates, and even full-fledged compositions that remix different parts of his speeches for hilarious effect. These have no doubt helped reinforce the idea that he is a loud-mouthed buffoon, but at the same time they may have also helped boost his campaign, or at least his profile.
In fact, watching Trump—one of the candidates who most clearly understands and caters to the current media environment—you almost get the sense that he is pandering to the GIF creators and the spin doctors with his facial expressions and his delivery. It’s not so much about the sound bite as the impression he is giving with his body language, etc. He is a master showman, and that’s what comes across in every frame.
Trump’s ability to play to this phenomenon isn’t surprising, since he is both a creation of the popular media and someone who revels in it, whether it’s hosting a reality TV show or appearing in movies as himself. Other presidential candidates like Ben Carson, who has a fairly sleepy demeanor on television, likely suffer in part because their behavior doesn’t make for good clips and GIFs.
Is this making political coverage, especially in the United States, more shallow? It certainly feels that way, although it’s difficult to prove. We have long since moved away from the days of the two-day or three-day spin cycle—now, the response from politicians and their campaigns has to be virtually instantaneous. And it tends to accentuate the things that capture public attention.
This creates a significant amount of pressure for politicians, who now have to have huge teams of social-media interns working for them, just to monitor Twitter and Facebook (and Instagram and Snapchat and Vine and Periscope) for potential land-mines. By the time the newspaper clippings or magazine columns show up, it’s too late. And if you don’t have a GIF of your own ready to go, you’ve probably already lost.