Forensic analysis of propaganda: “Michelle Obama Keeps Socialist Books in the White House”

Summary:   This is a forensic analysis of an of propaganda.   The story was obviously false, yet blasted  around the Internet — aided by endorsements by some major conservative website — and others repeating the story.  It provides another warning of how the Internet can make us stupid.  We’ll need to do much better if America is to survive, let alone prosper, in the 21st century.  A first step is for people to hold accountable those from whom they get information.  After all, conservatives are the target for conservative propaganda — and vice versa.   So long as we enjoy being lied to, people will lie to us.  Don’t let them get away with it; hold the websites your peers to high standards.  We’ll all be better off, and the nation become stronger.  This is another in a series highlighting the lies that increasingly shape American beliefs; other posts appear at the end.

This is a simple story.  A wingnut posts an absurd story.  Others spread it.  Some important websites endorses it.  Unusually, it has a happy ending.  The Washington Post ran a definitive rebuttal, and the original website ran a weak retraction.  Key aspects of this story providing lessons to us all:

  • This story never should have ran so widely; it was obviously false.
  • Michelle Obama probably will never get an apology. 
  • The readers of the sites passing on this story also deserve apologies; don’t hold you breath.
  • Most of these bloggers will ignore their endorsement of obviously false defamatory rumors — or hide behind the “we’re just little bloggers in our pj’s” defense. 
  • The first is despicable, the second no longer true of bloggers — in aggregate.
  • With power comes responsibility.  When this becomes second nature to Americans, we’ll be a stronger nation.

Step one:   the story ignites

Photo Evidence: Michelle Obama Keeps Socialist Books In The White House Library“, Rob Port (host of Dakota Talk Radio), Say Anything Blog, 17 February 2010 — Technorati lists this as one of the top 100 political blogs.  Excerpt:

I arrived in Washington DC today to cover CPAC and since I was in town, and since CPAC doesn’t really get rolling until tomorrow, I tagged along with some Scott Hennen Show listeners on an extensive tour of the White House as part of the Common Sense Travel Club. One of the stops on the tour (which was wonderful by the way) was the White House library.

Now, according out the person who guided our tour, the library is stock with books picked out by the First Lady, Michelle Obama. Being a bit of a bibliophile, I started to peruse some of the books on the shelves…and lookie, lookie what I found (click for a larger view) {photo}

By itself, this wouldn’t be that big of a deal. But in the context of Anita Dunn saying Chairman Mao is her favorite political philosopher? In the context of the Mao ornament on the White House Christmas tree? In the context of Obama’s economic policies? Well, I’ll let you make your own call.

There were 8 books identifiable in the photo.  All obviously old, mostly academic in nature.  Filed together among the thousands of books by a common subject (it’s a library).  Most written before Michelle Obama was born in 1964.   With subjects unlikely to interest a modern socialist or Maoist.  Only an ideologue or fool would attribute these to Michelle Obama without stronger evidence.

Step Two:  endorsement by other websites

These people are not fools, and probably knew exactly what they were doing.  No apologies yet (that I see) to either their readers or Michelle Obama.  To cite just two…

Step Three:  rebuttal

Socialist books in the White House library? A blog provides photo evidence but only part of the story“, Stephen Lowman, blog of the Washington Post, 18 February 2010

Rob Port ran this update on this post:

According to the Washington Post it was First Lady Jackie Kennedy who oversaw the placing of the books in the White House library, and they’ve been there since 1963. Apparently no administration since has changed the contents of the library. So the guide I was with didn’t give me the whole story. Either that, or we misunderstood one another. The Chairman Mao Christmas ornament, the Obama adviser who idolizes Mao and the nationalizations of the banks, car companies and attempted nationalizations of student loans and health care are all, unfortunately, still very true.

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Including About the FM website page. Of esp relevance to this topic:

About propaganda and info warfare:

  1. Successful info ops, but who are the targets?, 1 May 2008
  2. The most expensive psy-war campaign – ever!, 13 July 2008
  3. Psywar, a core skill of the US Military (used most often on us), 26 November 2008
  4. Iran’s getting the bomb, or so we’re told. Can they fool us twice?, 16 February 2009
  5. How the Soviet Menace was over-hyped – and what we can learn from this, 13 October 2009
  6. More attempts to control the climate science debate using smears and swarming, 19 October 2009
  7. About Wikipedia’s handling of controversial topics…like climate science, 20 December 2009
  8. Think-tanks bribe journalists to promote our wars, 24 December 2009
  9. Iran will have the bomb in 5 years (again), 20 January 2010
  10. Successful propaganda as a characteristic of 21st century America, 1 February 2010
  11. More propaganda: the eco-fable of Easter Island, 4 February 2010
  12. The hidden history of the global warming crusade, 19 February 2010

About disinformation:

  1. Cable Cut Fever grips the conspiracy-hungry fringes of the web , 7 February 2008
  2. Resolution of the Great Submarine Cable Crisis – and some lessons learned , 8 February 2008
  3. Does reading Debkafile make us smarter, or dumber?, 15 June 2008
  4. More rumors of war: our naval armada has sailed to Iran!, 9 August 2008
  5. Update on the rumored armada sailing to Iran, 13 August 2008
  6. Stop the presses: no naval armada has sailed to blockade Iran!, 20 August 2008
  7. Proposed legislation prepares the way for war with Iran!, 25 August 2008
  8. The media doing what it does best these days, feeding us disinformation, 18 February 2009


Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 word max), civil and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

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16 thoughts on “Forensic analysis of propaganda: “Michelle Obama Keeps Socialist Books in the White House””

  1. Speaking of propaganda, is there any particular reason you focus exclusively on examples on the conservative side?
    FM reply: False. Look at the list of posts under “For More Information” (at the end of this article).
    * About Wikipedia’s handling of controversial topics…like climate science, 20 December 2009
    * Successful propaganda as a characteristic of 21st century America, 1 February 2010 — See Section One: On the left.
    * More propaganda: the eco-fable of Easter Island, 4 February 2010
    * The media doing what it does best these days, feeding us disinformation, 18 February 2009 — About global warming propaganda.

    This site has a narrow focus: geopolitics. As such it examines much right-wing propaganda (I don’t believe “conservative” accurately describes a desire for long foreign wars). Left-wing propaganda tends to concern itself more with domestic policy, seldom discussed here. Climate change is an exception, due to its many broad implications for both public policy and the physical world.

  2. I accept your explanation, but this is not an example of propaganda about a geopolitical issue. I guess I disagree with your seeming premise that propaganda on the left is primarily related to global warming and domestic “noble causes” rather than this sort of petty character-assasination stuff. For example, see “Faux Controversy Over Palin’s Bracelet Shows Value Of Reporting Before Blogging“, Mark Memmott, blog of NPR, 11 February 2010.

    But I allow that I may be misunderstanding your larger point.
    FM reply: Rather it’s I that was unclear. Also, thanks for the link to the excellent NRP article.
    Your assertion that I “focus exclusively on examples on the conservative side” was false — as I showed.
    Most posts here will be about “geopolitics, broadly defined.” Hence the articles about propaganda are mostly about war and climate change.
    Most posts” but not “all posts”. As the FM website increasingly discusses how to reform America, the focus has slowly broadened. Hence this article.

    (2) “I disagree with your seeming premise that propaganda on the left is primarily related to global warming and domestic ‘noble causes'”

    I said nothing of the sort. I said: “Left-wing propaganda tends to concern itself more with domestic policy”, vs. right-wing propaganda which tends to focus more on national security.

    (3) “than this sort of petty character-assasination stuff.”

    Effective propaganda consists to a large extent of this “petty character-assasination stuff”, which molds people’s preconceptions. Which is why IMO forensic analysis of this is important. We have to do better, or the Internet will make us dumber!

  3. FM: “It provides another warning of how the Internet can make us stupid.

    Obviously not- people are reading about the controversy of the controversy here! Who is letting them get away with it? You said WaPo rebutted it, and the source retracted it. Seems to me people are not dumb are trying to get rid of the lie.

    The best thing about the web is that it is a web! and not a downstream one way source of information. I think perhaps, that many people are just immature swimmers. We all will become very sophisticated with more information.
    FM reply: I disagree. While the original website has posted a weak retraction, the hundreds of others have not. That’s the problem with rumors, they outrun the correction. That’s the power of propaganda, it injects virulent memes into society — which are often difficult to remove. Hence my focus on prevention (the great insight of public health). Readers: don’t let them get away with this!

  4. Pingback: the third man at the north pole, architectural skylight wallpaper, what’s wrong with the right – the anatomy of two smears « inkbluesky

  5. Ave, Quintus Fabius.

    This reminds me – as it should you – of our dear Cato the Elder’s constant harping at the end of every speech he gave at the Senate: “Carthago delenda est” (or something close), that is “Carthage must burn.” Please recall this was after the Roman army and navy had defeated Hannibal, and we had successfully made a profitable (to the Republic) peace with Carthage to end the Second Punic War.
    But that wasn’t enough for Cato the Elder. He seemed to be a (no pun – much – intended) portent for the Rob Ports of the world. He kept up his ranting until one day, the Senate had enough and did decide to once more prosecute a war with Carthage, the Third Punic War. Because we had already pretty much disarmed the Carthaginians, they weren’t able to put up much of a fight, but set down for a long siege inside their capital. You may remember that the Romans did win that siege.

    What we did afterwards was a shame that still stains our Republic’s reputation after all these millenia. Rome burned Carthage to the ground, killed all the adult males, enslaved all the others, and in a most cruel closure to the war, salted the very earth upon which Carthage stood.

    We all used to laugh at Cato with his inane remarks, remember Quintus? I wonder for how long we will laugh at the Rob Ports of the world.

    Many thanks for your constant reminders of the price of a Republic.

    Publius Cornelius,

  6. The perpetrators of this calculated hoax have something elusive in common with the tea party speaker who advocated the hanging a senator. Who wants to bet they both listen to and BELIEVE either Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity (or both?)

  7. I really don’t understand why you and the Washington Post think this is such a serious issue, Fabius. Yes, it’s lamentable (if true) that a collection of books owned by a politician’s wife and dignified by the name “library” should contain only two books about socialism…

    Oh wait. The point of the “propaganda” was that no decent person would own any books that have the word “Socialism” in the title. I think. But if this is propaganda, then it’s terrible propaganda. Anyone who makes such a claim automatically reveals himself as an utterly ignorant ass. I would hope my enemies spread as much of this propaganda as possible. I would counsel all those who are not ignorant asses to meet such attacks with all the scorn and derisive braying at their command! But why bother with refutation and demands for a retraction? It’s as though an enemy has deliberately stabbed himself in the posterior, and now we shall demand that he apologize.
    FM reply: You appear to say that these memes are inconsequential. The evidence showing the contrary is clear: the hundreds of websites featuring this story, many of which have dozens of comments expressing horror at this photo.

    Nor is this only a phenomenon of the right, as I (and others) have shown. It’s a weakness, and perhaps a serious one. I believe we can and must do better.

  8. According to a report I heard on NPR this AM, 20% of Americans regard themselves as socialists, while only 9% are teabaggers. White House library should have more books about socialism, and they should be required reading for congress.

  9. Well at any rate, ya gotta love the image of after a hard day’s toil in the oval office, president Obama sneaking back into the residential quarters to have the first lady, in a hushed tone, recite evil passages of socialists propaganda into his ear. They might even light candles, get naked in bed together, and give each other a sly smirking grin when they do it.

    I suppose at some point they will figure out that all the laughter they get with these presentations is because cartoon narratives are just that, cartoons. And cartoons are suppose to be funny.

  10. Of course the truth of the matter is that the United States, contrary to all the cartoon worlds presented, is already a socialized welfare state on par with most European models. The primary difference, or “exception” is that ours is more dysfunctional, because we lack the confidence in the role of government to perform the tasks we expect of it.

  11. I remember reading somewhere that there was a fellow, a professor of Japanese studies, who during World War II ended up on some sort of suspect list kept by J Edgar hoover because he had a map of Japan on his wall. (I believe I read this in The Man Who Kept the Secrets by Thomas S Power) This post reminded me of that.

    Was Port engaged in actual propaganda or could he simply have been pig ignorant? (Are the two mutually exclusive?)

    I have several books around the the house about piracy at various times in history, including the present day. Perhaps I should hide them, lest I be suspected of piracy.

    Additional thought: Just to be clear, I’m not offering pig ignorance as a defense.
    FM reply: I too wondered about this question: ignorant or skilled activist? I have neither read his website nor listened to his radio show, so cannot offer an opinion.

  12. I just dont get this . Why do you people seem to regard Socialism as some sort of herpes ?
    I can see you would be upset if Michele read up on necrophilia . But Socialism ?
    Why shouldnt she read up on Maoism ? Maybe they are planning to visit India and Nepal .
    Maybe she worries about the unemployed and homeless , healthcare and stuff . Like good Christians should .
    Why you call your parties Republicans and Democrats ? Are the Republicans planning to stop holding democratic elections , and the Democrats aiming to appoint a King ?

  13. No wonder Michele had to take an entourage to go shopping . Hang on before you buy those almonds , Michele . Hmm -Moroccan . Let me check with the CIA .

  14. FM reply: “You appear to say that these memes are inconsequential. The evidence showing the contrary is clear: the hundreds of websites featuring this story, many of which have dozens of comments expressing horror at this photo.

    Nothing is particularly clear to me about this whole thread. Apparently, some dolts published allegations that Mrs. Obama selected two books of Socialism and placed them in her library. They (and, apparently, many like-minded individuals) seemed to think that this was proof positive of the moral corruption of the present administration. You, Fabius, think that this was a reprehensible propaganda ploy; you (if I understand you correctly) think it’s important that the allegations be disproved—I suppose by revealing either that the photograph was faked, or that Mrs. Obama did not personally choose the books.

    I think that’s dead wrong. If you want to refute these allegations, then you are implicitly agreeing that if Mrs. Obama had indeed chosen two books about socialism in her library, then she has demonstrated some sort of misjudgment or perhaps revealed that she harbors evil thoughts. In fact, there is nothing wrong with owning books about Socialism, and—as I stated earlier—two is a small number for any sort of comprehensive political library.

    Dolts often say stupid things. The correct response to idiotic accusations is usually not to refute them, for that merely gives the impression that they make sense.
    FM reply: In fact I said almost the opposite. While rebuttal of this story is nice, that will not reach most of the target audience who believe these things. That’s why (as in public health) prevention is more effective than treatment. Those spreading these stories should be shamed by their own readers. Communities can only be policed by their own members. So long as we like lies, people will lie to us.

    “Dolts often say stupid things.”

    While your self-esteem is impressive, I doubt that “dolt” well describes the people who spread a rumor like this. And certainly not the more sophisticated stories I discuss in other posts.

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