Five takeaways from Kansas Reflector’s viral photo of an anti-mandate hearing

November 20, 2021 3:33 am

Kansas Reflector editor in chief Sherman Smith’s original Tweet is in the center; it was retweeted, shared and copied across the platform. (Clay Wirestone illustration/Kansas Reflector, original image by Thad Allton for Kansas Reflector)

It was the tweet seen ’round the world — or at least in the portion of the world tracking anti-vax extremism.

Three people wore yellow Stars of David to a hearing about COVID-19 vaccine mandates at the Kansas Statehouse the morning of Friday, Nov. 12. Kansas Reflector editor in chief Sherman Smith posted a photograph of the group by contributor Thad Allton at 11:16 a.m., in response to a tweet from Rep. Stephanie Clayton, D-Overland Park. By the end of the day, both Smith’s tweet and the photograph had rocketed across the platform. 

Legislative leaders ended up denouncing the symbolism, and Paul Samberg tackled the subject in a column on Thursday. Yet the viral tweet offers five important takeaways for those who follow current events through social media.


It’s bigger and faster than you imagine

Smith’s original tweet, which was retweeted and shared hundreds of times by fellow Twitter users, had more than a million impressions. That means more than 1 million folks saw his post and accompanying image on the platform.

For reference, 1 million people is approximately two and a half Wichitas. Or a third of every man, woman and child living in Kansas.

Of that total, three-quarters of the impressions came within the first day, Smith told me. That’s a ton of eyes in a shockingly short span. Journalists and politicians may pride themselves on reacting quickly to current events, but social media users faced with a compelling image can move even more quickly.


Users play fast and loose with credits

Those million impressions only scratch the surface, though.

The image was stripped from Smith’s tweet and spread further across the web. A user named Chad Loder used it, along with incorrect information about the gathering. (Loder had also blocked Smith on Twitter, preventing him from seeing that use.) Loder’s tweet, which didn’t mention the Reflector or Allton, was retweeted and shared by thousands of people.

The multitude included a number of high-profile Twitter users, including anti-Trump conservative Bill Kristol, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, actor Josh Gadd, KISS guitarist Paul Stanley and Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg.

We also watched it appear in online articles, including ones from the Jerusalem Post (which credited us correctly), the U.K. Independent and the Kristol co-founded Bulwark.

Don’t get us wrong. We’re delighted to have Loder, random celebrities and publications around the globe use our photos. Kansas Reflector’s content is free and available for other news outlets. However, as Smith noted shortly after tweeting the image, we do ask for attribution (along with minimal editing and a link if you republish our stories online).

That shouldn’t be tough to do.


A professional made the photo

This image didn’t just happen. Smith didn’t snap it on his cellphone camera. No, it was taken by Allton, the Topeka Capital-Journal’s retired director of photography and current freelance contributor to the Reflector.

Daran Duffy, with his wife and daughter, wear Jewish stars to a hearing on COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Duffy told lawmakers he wears the star as a reminder that Hitler’s action were lawful. (Thad Allton for Kansas Reflector)

Allton has an uncanny eye for perfect moments and ideal compositions. His first shot, shared in Smith’s tweet, and an alternate version used in the ensuing story, go beyond simple documentation. The family so casually wearing yellow stars rivets your attention. Faces throughout the crowd suggest stories.

That’s the professional photographer’s job: To capture a single moment that reverberates through time and space.

Allton’s a master at that.

He told me he doesn’t recall his images going viral before, but given his modesty he probably wouldn’t have paid attention anyway. He deserves credit for the image’s punch and power.


Don’t ignore the context

Loder’s tweet mischaracterized the Reflector’s photo, and too many folks parroted the mischaracterization without question. The post claimed that “anti-vaxxers are showing up to municipal meetings wearing yellow stars.”

Except this wasn’t a municipal meeting. It was a hearing at the Kansas Statehouse of the 2021 Special Committee on Government Overreach and the Impact of COVID-19 Mandates. That hearing laid the groundwork for a special session of the Legislature beginning Monday.

Accurate context makes a difference. Many sharing this tweet likely imagined a sedate city hall meeting interrupted by colorful characters. All the better to prompt a rush of refreshing outrage. How would they react if they understood that top legislators in Topeka provided a safe space for extremist voices? What would they say if they learned this was the fourth such meeting?


What’s local is global, and vice versa

Kansans hate being the center of national attention.

The incendiary, instantaneous nature of social media makes the actions of an ignorant few visible far and wide. Smith’s tweet serves as only the latest example of a long-running history that includes intelligent design debates on the state board of education and former Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax catastrophe.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been tough on everyone. These past 20 months have been especially tough on Kansans who want to show this state at its best. Many people of goodwill have decided to grit their teeth, keep their heads down and wait for the lunacy to pass. Let the extremists tire themselves out, they think.

But these forces are only gaining strength, flaunting their twisted takes. Sensible Kansans should speak just as loudly and make themselves just as visible.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Most recently, Clay spent nearly four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics, and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.