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Lesson Plan

Conspiracy Theories: From JFK’s Assassination to Today

About this Video
This 12-minute video shows students why confusing evidence and weaknesses in a government investigation led to an avalanche of conspiracy theories. Connecting this mistrust in government to deeply ingrained historical processes that reach back to the American Revolution, the video illustrates with vivid examples how digital media have magnified and accelerated this tendency. The video is useful as a way of incorporating the Kennedy assassination into a discussion of changes and continuities in American culture. It could also be used to demonstrate how the assassination’s aftermath was connected to the public’s declining trust in American government in the decades after President Kennedy’s death. The video would also be useful for lessons on historiography and the difference between valid historical inquiry and misguided speculation, or lessons discussing the 21st century challenge of managing the proliferation of baseless theories and erroneous information online.
Content Advisory: This video includes footage of the assassination of President Kennedy. It includes discussion of a conspiracy theory relating to the abuse of children.
Objectives
  • The complex circumstances that surrounded the assassination of President Kennedy.
  • Why President Kennedy’s assassination led to conspiracy theories.
  • How conspiracy theories are connected to deeply ingrained historical patterns and processes regarding mistrust in government.
  • How these tendencies have flourished with the rise of digital media.
Subjects
  • Civics & Government
  • U.S. History
  • Journalism
Topics
  • Cultural and Social Change
  • Democracy
  • Donald Trump
  • John F. Kennedy
  • The First Amendment
  • Watergate
  • The Media
  • Social Media
  • Media Literacy
  • 1960s America
  • The Postwar Era (1945-1980)
  • The Modern Era (1980-Present)
  • America After 2000
For Teachers
Introducing the Lesson

The proliferation of conspiracy theories across social media today may seem like a hazard of the digital age, but it has ties to a home movie taken by a Dallas businessman more than 50 years ago.

Abraham Zapruder was among the thousands who turned out in Dallas on November 22, 1963, to catch a glimpse of President John F. Kennedy.

Zapruder aimed his 8mm Bell & Howell home movie camera at the president’s motorcade as it rolled by, and by chance captured the assassination on film.

Because it appeared to show that Kennedy was shot in the front of the head, the film stirred up controversy: the government’s official investigation by the Warren Commission reported that the president had been shot from behind.

That contradiction gave rise to another one: The film seemed to indicate that there were at least two shooters, while the Warren Commission maintained that there had been only one.

These contradictions opened the door to countless books advancing one conspiracy after another about who killed the president and why. Conspiracy-thinking became a fact of American life.

Today, the blurring of the distinction between fact and fiction on social media seems to invite anyone to step forward with homemade “facts” to argue almost anything, for example that a Washington pizza restaurant was a front for a child sex ring.

But some historians believe that the tendency to fall back on conspiracy theories is evidence of a more disturbing trend: Americans increasingly mistrust government and their elected officials.

Essential Questions
  • Why did many Americans question the Warren Commission’s official investigation of President Kennedy’s assassination?
  • How did the CIA respond to the public’s doubts about the Warren Report?
  • How has the internet encouraged the growth of unfounded beliefs and conspiracy theories?
  • Other than theories about the assassination of President Kennedy, what other events in the 1960s and 1970s contributed to a decline in trust of the government? How is this reflected in public opinion polls?
Lesson Procedure
  • Do you think there was a conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy? What facts support your opinion? How did you arrive at your belief about the assassination?
  • When Dan Rather says that people “ache for an explanation for the unexplainable,” he’s describing the intersection of emotional needs and empirical reality. In developing their a of historical events, do you think that most people start with facts and build toward their beliefs? Or do they start with beliefs and look for facts that support them?
  • How did the American Revolution and the ideals of the founders instill a degree of mistrust in public attitudes toward government? How is this mistrust institutionalized in the structures created by the Constitution? Are there different kinds of mistrust in government? Can this mistrust be positive and useful? Or negative and unproductive?
  • Is there a way to regulate or modify social media platforms to limit the spread of unfounded beliefs and conspiracy theories? How should we respond to the “post-fact” era?
  • Do you think most American citizens trust the government too much, or not enough? Is it dangerous for citizens to place too much trust in the government? Can it be dangerous if there is too little trust in the government?
Additional Resources
Transcript for "Conspiracy Theories and Fake News from JFK to Pizzagate" Retro Report
“Who’s Fueling Conspiracy Whisperers’ Falsehoods?” Retro Report
Audio Interview: "The Deep Grip of American Conspiracy Theories" WNYC

Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem

Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.

Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.

Analyze multiple and complex causes and effect of events in the past.

Skill 4.B: Explain how a specific historical development is situated within a broader historical context.

Theme: Politics and Power (PCE)

Questions? Tips? Concerns? Reach out to our Director of Education, David Olson: dolson@retroreport.com