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How the Web keeps Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories alive

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There have been two government investigations. Hundreds of witnesses saw it happen. And the whole thing was captured on film. But 50 years later, many Americans still have doubts about what really happened the day President John F. Kennedy was shot. 

And thanks to the Internet, we're not getting any closer to a consensus.

Conspiracy theories implicating everyone from the Soviets to the CIA to the Mafia existed well before the Internet came into being, but experts say the Web has fundamentally changed the way these theories develop and spread throughout society. 

"It's a more social experience than it used to be," said Mark Fenster, a professor at the University of Florida Law School and the author of Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture.

"Two decades ago, you occasionally had groups of conspiracy theorists physically getting together for meetings and conventions," Fenster added. "Now the conversation is constantly happening online."

The Internet isn't really bringing new converts into the world of JFK conspiracy theories, he told the Daily Dot, but it is intensifying the experience for those who already reject the government's official conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone that late November day in 1963. It's also making it easier for new conspiracy movements, like the 9/11 Truthers and Obama Birthers, to gain traction.

It didn't take long after Kennedy's death for skeptics to start raising doubts about the official conclusions offered by the Warren Commission. According to Gallup, in the days immediately following the assassination, 52 percent of Americans already believed there was more than one person involved in the shooting. That number would rise as high as 81 percent by 1976. Today, 63 percent of the country still believes there was a conspiracy.

The Kennedy assassination has continually attracted controversy due to several key ambiguities about the shooting. The type of gun Oswald use would have limited the number of shots at the president's motorcade to three, but many insist that eyewitness accounts and the bodily injuries caused are evidence of at least a fourth bullet and a second shooter. There's also the infamous "back and to the left” motion of Kennedy's body when he was fatally shot in the head, as captured by Abraham Zapruder in his famous filn of the event. A number of conspiracy theorists see this as clear evidence the lethal bullet came from a nearby grassy knoll instead of the book depository window Oswald used as his sniper's perch. 

And perhaps nothing has opened the door for conspiracy theorizing quite as much as the shocking murder of Oswald himself two days later. Oswald's death led many to believe he was being silenced by some larger group behind the shooting. Regardless, the fact that he died so quickly after the assassination has left many questions unanswered. 

All these gaps in the story of the Kennedy assassination naturally lent themselves to conspiracy thinking, according to Michael Barkun, a professor emeritus at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of public affairs and author of Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America.

"This was a singular event," Barkun told the Daily Dot. "It was such a momentous event that people could not explain it to themselves."

Barkun said that throughout history, conspiracies theories have sprung up to give people a narrative grasp of the world around them. He said the idea that a dynamic and powerful world leader like Kennedy could be gunned down by a no-name loner working at the Texas School Book Depository is hard for many to fully comprehend. There is a natural tendency to give the event a greater scope in order to endow it with more meaning.

But of course, all this was true before the Internet came to exist. The Web’s big contribution has been to connect conspiracy believers with one another. Barkun said that prior to the Internet, pursuing information on Kennedy conspiracies was difficult.

"I began studying conspiracies in the late '80s, early '90s," he said. "Back then, everything was on paper. A lot of self-published studies and newsletters."

With the advent of the Web, that all changed. It was much easier for theorists to share ideas. Not only that, but they could share their theories with the same panache as mainstream media outlets that advanced the conventional view of the Warren Commission. Theorists, who had long blamed media institutions for colluding with the government to conceal the truth, could reach as wide an audience using websites that appeared just as legitimate. 

But surprisingly, these trends have not led to higher rates of belief in JFK conspiracy theories. On the contrary, 63 percent is relatively low in historical terms. 

"Not much has changed in terms of people prescribing to the theories," Fenster said. "But the chatter is much more active among those who already believe." 

It doesn't take much searching online to find conspiracy hotbeds. On Reddit’s /r/conspiracy subreddit, which has more than 197,000 subscribers, there are hundreds of threads to be found related to a whole hoax of conspiracies (everything from Roswell to Brittany Murphy). Naturally, in the lead up to the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's killing, there has been a spike in the number of users talking about all aspects of the assassination.

A recent thread in response to Gallup's poll, evolved into a conversation about whether or not historians had special insight into the assassination. Some comments cut to the fundamental notion that the Internet has democratized information surrounding the case.

"Historians don't have any special access to information that the public doesn't, and events around the assassination are pretty well known," wrote Reddit user halodouble. "The rest is just mating of logic and speculation."

Though the Internet hasn't generated swaths of new conspiracy believers, it has had an interesting effect on how modern conspiracies grow and develop. 

Fenster and Barkun agree that the Internet acts as an incubator for newer conspiracies, allowing them to seep into public consciousness much faster. That's not to say some modern conspiracies wouldn't exist without the web. Barkun argues an event of such staggering magnitude as 9/11 was likely to produce conspiracies anyway. But causes like the Birther movement, he argues, would not exist without the ease of information sharing afforded by the Internet.

But despite all these new voices now entering the discussion, the scholars don't believe they will help uncover a definitive answer in the Kennedy case.

"I don't think there's ever going to be a single piece of evidence or a single revelation that ends the debate," Barkun said. 

Photo from the Zapruder film via Time-Life