By William K. Alcorn
Had President John F. Kennedy been assassinated in the technologically advanced era of today, the tragic event likely would have been recorded by hundreds of cellphone cameras and other social media devices.
As a result, the world would have been provided unbiased witnesses, not subject to human error, from every conceivable angle allowing the public, media and law enforcement to view and judge for themselves what exactly transpired, said Adam C. Earnheardt, head of the Department of Communications at Youngstown State University.
At the same time, however, more images and video likely accompanied by unreliable information would have been spread via social media and as a result, conspiracy theories would be 100-fold, Earnheardt said.
Fifty years ago, long before the social media explosion, most people learned about the assassination of President Kennedy via their newspaper, radio, television or telephone – hard-wired to a wall or a desk at home or at the office.
This reporter was on state Route 5 commuting from Kent State University to Warren, where I lived and worked as a clerk at the U.S. Post Office when the music I was listening to on my car radio was interrupted for a report that President Kennedy had been shot.
I was 22, one year out of the Marine Corps, married and in my first year at KSU studying journalism.
My first impression was that President Kennedy was not seriously injured. Yet, before I got to Warren, fewer than 20 miles, he was dead.
While word of President Kennedy’s assassination spread quickly in 1963, it would have zoomed around the nation and world almost instantaneously with social media broadcasting the sounds and images of the event, via texts and Facebook and tweets.
The best record of President Kennedy’s assassination, known as the Zapruder Film, is Abraham Zapruder’s silent 8mm home movie.
And while still photos of frames from Zapruder’s movie were quickly published, the actual film was kept from the American public – something that seems inconceivable by today’s standards – until March 6, 1975, when it was televised on the ABC late-night show “Good Night America.”
Without question, social media has become the way most people, especially younger generations, exchange and gather information.
“It’s all about the diffusion of information, and how that diffusion has become almost instantaneous since the advent of social media,” Earnheardt said.
A fair comparison of how social media might have affected the aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination is the example of the Boston Marathon bombings, said Earnheardt.
On April 15, two pressure-cooker bombs exploded at :49 p.m., killing three people and injuring about 264 others. The bombs exploded about 13 seconds apart near the race’s finish line.
The FBI published pictures of the Boston Marathon suspects and credited the social media response with their quick arrest.
Social media’s involvement was not all positive, however.
“The problem is the potential for misinformation,” said Earnheardt, an advocate of teaching people to be responsible and informed mass communicators starting in their kindergarten years.
In the case of the Boston Marathon, social media twisted information and ended up publishing a picture of a Boston resident, who was missing from his home, as a suspect. His family was targeted by traditional media and social media until word got out that the information was inaccurate.
In the case of President Kennedy’s assassination, the capture of Lee Harvey Oswald, the believed killer of President Kennedy, might have happened more quickly, Earnheardt said.
SDLqSocial media would have created many more stories. We would have had so many more perspectives. Everybody would have had a voice, not just Walter Cronkite,SDRq he said.
Cronkite, anchorman for the “CBS Evening News” from 1962 to 1981, announced the death of President Kennedy to the nation.
Information would have been disseminated much more quickly with social media, but how much of it would have been accurate is the question, said Paul Haridakis, director of the School of Communication Studies at Kent State University.
“In a social media climate, we would not necessarily have been relying on one film. In terms of access, we would have had many different pictures of President Kennedy’s assassination from different angles,” said Haridakis, whose communication research focuses on media use and effects.
Were social media in use then, traditional media outlets, most of which today have desks committed to receiving social media, would have been overwhelmed with information from citizen journalists.
The positive of social media is that information gets spread. The negative is, Haridakis said, it may not be accurate.
“In the old days, origination of accuracy or inaccuracy may have been more identifiable. With social media, its credibility may be more difficult to track,” he said.
Regarding social media’s potential impact on the investigation of President Kennedy’s assassination, law enforcement probably would like to have had as much information as possible, even if it was inaccurate, Haridakis said.
Youngstown Chief of Police Rod Foley concurs.
“Cellphones are among our major tools – they are perfect eyewitnesses and can be used to pinpoint people at specific locations. There is nothing better than a video of an event to corroborate physical evidence,” he said.
Regarding President Kennedy’s assassination, Haridakis said: “I’m pretty confident social media would have impacted the flow of information.”
“But it would be conjecture to say what the impact of social media on the end result of the investigation, or that social media information would have been more valuable in the long term than what was available at the time.
“There is no way to tell,” he said.