Reimagining JFK’s Assassination: How Would Kennedy's Death Play Out In The Digital Age?

I was sitting at my desk in Lower Manhattan when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

It was Nov. 22, 2013, a day that will go down as one of the darkest in America’s history, but as the morning began, my colleagues and I were working in the newsroom as usual, trolling blogs and social media for a trending story or piece of news to write about.

At exactly 1:31 p.m. EST, the reporter in the neighboring cubicle popped his head up and asked if I had seen anything about the president being shot in Dallas.

Probably just another hoax, I figured, as just two weeks earlier Richard Burton had been rumored dead for days until Elizabeth Taylor finally tweeted that they had simply been out yachting on the Mediterranean.

When I pulled up TweetDeck, however, I saw that dozens of people were retweeting the rumor, and eventually several grainy Instagram photos (most likely using the Hudson filter) of the first lady crawling on the trunk of a black Lincoln convertible as the president slumped in the back seat started making the rounds. It seemed that the story was shaping up to be true.

Yet CNN, which plays silently on the flatscreen on the wall in our office all day, oddly had not yet mentioned the shooting. It was nearly 15 minutes before the station finally posted a red-and-white banner that read, “BREAKING: Reports Suggest JFK Shot Dead.”

CNN and most of the other networks, having cut their full-time president-trailing teams years ago, had no one there yet to do a live broadcast from Dealey Plaza, but a tea party protester on a nearby grassy knoll was able to get a six-second Vine clip of Kennedy being shot in the head, which quickly went viral with the title “Prez Kennedy Shot #Dallas #JFK #RIPJFK.”

The shooting quickly dominated Twitter Trends, with hashtags like #JFKShot, #PrayForJFK and #KennedyDead skyrocketing nationally and around the globe. BuzzFeed quickly verified that Kennedy had in fact died as a result of a gunshot wound to the head.

Reddit had been on the story since the first tweets started showing up, and a live stream compiling news reports, witness accounts, images and other information shot to the top of its front page. A second Reddit thread quickly joined the first on the front page, this one from the /r/conspiracy subreddit.

Already Redditors were openly positing that Kennedy had been killed by homegrown Islamic terrorists, the Illuminati, or a member of Open Carry Texas, a gun-rights organization that had been particularly incensed by Kennedy’s recent gun control proposals and whose members had shown up along the motorcade route with assault rifles slung over their backs in a legal, dramatic demonstration of their right to bear arms.

Another group of commenters suggested that the entire event had been a “false-flag” operation aimed at inuring the populace against violence in order to allow the New World Order to tighten its grip in advance of its coming takeover.

Anonymous also immediately took heat online, though the collective denied having anything to do with the shooting, and shortly thereafter a Twitter account associated with the group claimed responsibility for a DDoS attack that shut down the websites of the Dallas Tea Party, Open Carry Texas and other local conservative groups.

Wolf Blitzer was on the scene in Dallas within a couple of hours, reporting live, first declaring breathlessly that “a law enforcement source” said police were looking for three shooters, likely of Islamic descent, wearing black hoodies, though he retracted those details 20 minutes later. He was cordoned off in a media pen near the south end of Dealey Plaza with other broadcast reporters but was able to comment on the steady stream of black SUVs, police cars and riot squad tanks that poured into the area, concluding that “the shooters appear to still be on the loose” and that “there is a lot of law enforcement activity going on.”

Meanwhile, Fox News found itself embroiled in controversy when a guest took to discussing the political implications of Kennedy's death on a live Fox broadcast less than four hours after Kennedy's death. The conservative radio host predicted that Democrats would seek to capitalize on the assassination in a cynical bid to build support for the party and pick up congressional seats in 2014 and hold onto the White House in 2016. Shepard Smith and Roger Ailes swiftly decried the timing of the remarks, calling them insensitive and out of place at a time of national mourning.

SWAT teams from Dallas, Arlington, Fort Worth and suburban Cleburne -- which naturally has its own 10-man SWAT crew to police its 29,000 residents -- as well as various riot squads assembled in full combat gear, monitoring Dealey Plaza and surrounding areas to quash any visible outcry before it could get out of hand.

In a typical scene, four weeping teenage girls overcome by the sheer terror of having seen a YouTube video of their beloved president being shot in the head, rushed from a nearby Best Buy to the presidential procession route about an hour after the shooting in hopes of finding a friend whose baton-twirling troupe had been scheduled to perform during the festivities. Upon approaching Elm Street, the teens were promptly Maced by two riot squad officers, who then zip-tied their hands behind their backs and threw them in the back of a paddy wagon with a dozen other "persons of interest."

It was later learned that immediately following the shooting, the FBI and the Secret Service took jurisdiction over the Greater Dallas metropolitan region, establishing a perimeter around the parade route and taking everyone within it into custody for questioning. Each subject was interrogated, some for as long as 12 hours, while a number of young men fitting undisclosed descriptions were subjected to lengthy “enhanced interrogation techniques” deemed necessary for national security purposes.

Drones and helicopters flew overhead for days after the shooting, and federal agents set up a crisis center, through which they monitored all communications, deployed heavily armed agents to search entire blocks of Dallas homes, and ran scrambling software that intermittently disrupted local Internet and cell phone networks following the shooting.

The National Rifle Association would remain uncharacteristically quiet until two weeks after the shooting, when it issued a short statement suggesting that the national tragedy might have been averted if the Rotary Club of Dallas volunteers selling miniature flags along the parade route had been armed.

Anti-gun activists were quicker to the punch, filling Facebook feeds with links to articles touting strict gun control measures from the moment after news of the shooting broke, then mostly forgetting about the issue as the news cycle was subsumed by revelations that Miley Cyrus, James Franco and Rush Limbaugh were captured in smartphone photos and videos taken along the procession route just prior to the assassination.

For the next few days, media outlets focused on identifying other potential celebrities in the crowd, as well as rumors that Kennedy had slept with Cyrus one spring night in Hyannis Port. Shortly after Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as Kennedy’s successor, a 21-year-old hacker dredged up White House security camera footage of Johnson taken on Nov. 22 that led to speculation that he was drunk on Cutty Sark when his former boss was killed.

Despite the wild scrum of rumors and conspiracy theories that emerged in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the proliferation of smartphone images and YouTube clips chronicled that fated Dallas day in a piecemeal but coherent montage. As a result, there was no question about what exactly had happened.

The FBI, however, refused to release the results of its own investigation, including its ballistics team's findings and Kennedy’s autopsy and toxicology reports, which were classified as Top Secret -- a fact that fed Internet speculation that the agency might have been involved in the shooting.

Lee Harvey Oswald, whom the government would later finger in multiple investigations as Kennedy’s assassin and who was identified as such on the home page of the Daily Mail with the headline “Lee Oswald: JFK Assassin?” within hours of the attack, was shot dead only two days later by Jack Ruby, whose list of Twitter followers ballooned from less than 600 to several million following his arrest.

The firestorm over the feds’ refusal to reveal the classified documents and evidence it says prove Oswald’s guilt continues to this day. But the nation is largely moving on as Johnson grapples with the Iranian nuclear threat, Kennedy’s widow tours the nation with former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in support of gun control measures (do we hear 2016 calling?) and a proposed memorial to Kennedy remains unfunded by a perpetually gridlocked Congress. Despite all the challenges that face the nation in the wake of his tragic death, Americans are united in one thing: we will #NeverForgetJFK.

Join the Discussion