Conspiracy Theories and Fake News from JFK to Pizzagate

Retro Report explores decades of conspiracy theories – from the John F. Kennedy assassination to Pizzagate – and what they can tell us about how we view the world today.

For teachers
  • Read transcript
  • Producer: Miriam Weintraub
  • Producer: Jennifer Oko
  • Editor: Sandrine Isambert
  • Associate Producer: Victor Couto

For Educators


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.

Background reading

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.

Lesson Plan 1: Conspiracy Theories: From JFK’s Assassination to Today

Students will learn about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, including surrounding conspiracy theories, to explore the deeply ingrained American tendency to mistrust government – a characteristic of our national political culture that is as old as the Revolution.

  • 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.
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?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RH.11-12.7: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.
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RI.11-12.3: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.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.His.14.9-12.Analyze multiple and complex causes and effect of events in the past.
    • D2.His.1.9-12.Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.
  • AP U.S. History
    • Topic 9.6: Challenges of the 21st Century

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

      Theme: Politics and Power (PCE)