The GIF of Gab: The Mundane Politics of Animated Images

The House Judiciary Committee is only the latest body to use Michael Scott, Emma Stone, and red-headed mermaids to get attention for its messaging.

During the presidential campaign of 1996, at a televised debate with Bill Clinton, Republican candidate Bob Dole included, in his closing statement, the address of his website. The web was new then, and the conventions around it that are banal today—things like the ending of addresses with a “dot-com” or a “dot-gov”—were not yet second nature to the candidate. "If you really want to get involved, just tap into my home page,” Dole announced, painstakingly spelling out his site—“w-w-w-dot-dole-kemp-96-org”—without that final, crucial dot.

The whole thing, even during the early days of the World Wide Web, was awkward. And when people did come to the GOP ticket’s dot-org site, more awkwardness ensued: So many of them arrived at the same time that the site, unprepared for all the TV-based traffic, immediately crashed.

This makes a pretty good metaphor for the way politics tends to embrace pop-technological innovations: enthusiastically, if occasionally awkwardly. Roosevelt had the radio; Kennedy had the television; politicians of the 21st century, however, have the Internet—and the technologies associated with that medium have a tendency to reduce politicians as media figures, rather than enlarge them. Last month, President Obama, in a Buzzfeed post meant to promote the refurbished site, experimented with a selfie stick. And last week the House Judiciary Committee issued a press release criticizing the president’s immigration enforcement plan that was composed entirely of animated GIFs. Celebrities name-checked (loopy-image-checked?) in the document included Jennifer Lawrence, Steve Carrell, Kristen Wiig, Britney Spears, Emma Stone, and a half-human sea-dweller named Ariel.

The GIF-laden release achieved its ostensible purpose: It drew attention. Lots of it. Because this was a new thing, sort of, this whimsical fusion of Disney princess and public policy! Whether it was clever or “asinine,” the release was an innovative approach to political messaging.

Except, of course, it wasn’t that innovative. Earlier this year, House Speaker John Boehner’s staff used GIFs—12 of them, starring, exclusively, Taylor Swift—to poke fun at the White House’s free community college initiative. Two years ago, the House Energy and Commerce committee used moving images of various pop-cultural figures to argue in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline. ("What do Jimmy Fallon, Honey Boo Boo, Napoleon Dynamite’s brother Kip, Ron Burgundy, Dwight Schrute, and GloZell all have in common? Together, they capture the highs and lows of the turbulent journey of the Keystone XL pipeline over the past five years.") The White House itself turned to GIFs last year in its effort to convince people—young people in particular—to sign up for insurance on GIFs cited in that effort included a twerking woman and a lazy cat.

You could point out, certainly, that GIFs—with their endless, loopy repetitions, hinting at what might have happened had Sisyphus lived on into the digital age—suggest something profound, and profoundly cynical, about the various inertias of American politics. Beyond that, though, GIFs are not, their seeming novelty aside, meaningfully different from any other type of trendy digital media: They’re aimed at young people. They’re usually created by young people. They allow politicians to create that rarest of things within the heavily choreographed pageantries of American politics: the illusion of whimsy.

Last week's Judiciary Committee’s GIF-fest was simply an extension of the time the House Natural Resources Committee explained why people shouldn’t skip out on budget hearings in listicle form. It’s an extension of the Obama for America Tumblr. It's an extension of the White House's many experiments with Facebook and Tumblr and reddit and Instagram and YouTube and "Between Two Ferns." As a Judiciary Committee aide told the tech site Re/code in response to the criticism its press release drew, “GIF op-eds are being used more and more, including here in the halls of Congress.” The aide added that the committee is constantly trying to find new ways to “communicate our message to an increasing number of people.”

So are all political actors. And the way to do that, many of them are finding, is to minimize the divide between political media and media of other kinds. The relationship between politics and PR has long been a fluid one; digital media, for their part, are removing even more barriers between "politics" and "everything else." Barack Obama is an author on Buzzfeed. GIFs (and listicles and quizzes and the like) are equal-opportunity communications tools. The presidential campaign of 2012 was dubbed "the meme election." Internet jokery, however, is reshaping our political discourse far beyond the confines of traditional elections. You could say, less felicitously, that we're entering the era of "the permanent meme campaign." And that campaign will involve, inevitably, the tools of Internet virality—among them, yep, some jerky images of Disney princesses, blinking, nihilistically, into the ether.