(Bloomberg) -- For weeks now, followers of the fringe conspiracy group QAnon have been spinning theories and falsehoods about Walt Disney Co. online, whipping up a frenzy of negative sentiment against one of America’s best-known corporations.
Posts on Facebook, Twitter and several other platforms have falsely claimed the company has lost $636 million in theme-park reservations and that 350,000 people have canceled their subscriptions to the company’s Disney+ streaming service. Some have even linked to a fake article stating that Disney Chief Executive Officer Bob Chapek was arrested for human trafficking and child pornography.
While many of the posts have been taken down and debunked by websites such as Politifact and FactCheck.org, that hasn’t slowed the vitriol against the company on the forums and Telegram channels where believers in QAnon operate. Some of the commentators have even taken a page from the meme stock movement, sharing half-baked strategies to tank Disney’s shares.
“It’s all nonsense, but Q believers love this kind of thing, because it gives them something to fight against,” said Mike Rothschild, author of “The Storm Is Upon Us,” a book about QAnon.
Disney had already drawn the ire of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and other conservatives over its opposition to a schools bill banning discussion of sexual orientation among the youngest students in the state. DeSantis signed legislation on April 22 dissolving a special municipal district Disney has used to operate its theme parks in Florida since the late 1960s. His spokeswoman said the governor “doesn’t take cues” from the websites popular with QAnon adherents.
QAnon is a far-right political movement born out a belief that a secret of cabal of Democrat pedophiles are taking over the country. It’s most famous for inspiring a man to shoot up a Washington, D.C., pizza place, believing it was a hub for child prostitution.
Read more on QAnon’s origins and how it’s changed since the 2020 presidential election
Already convinced that there was a broad plot within society to target children, believers have embraced the increasingly hostile rhetoric being directed at Disney, particularly after internal videos of employees discussing their efforts to get more representation for LBGTQ characters surfaced.
This story used information compiled over two months from more than two dozen websites, social media accounts and online discussion groups that have explicit links to QAnon or a related conspiracy theory. Bloomberg isn’t identifying the sites or forums so as not to perpetuate false claims.
The bill dissolving Disney’s special district was heralded on one site as a sign the company was being “sunk into the sea for its perversity.” One demonstration near Disney World, promoted on QAnon channels, attracted dozens of protesters, though a social-media user claimed inaccurately that they had blocked the entrance to the theme park. The livestreamed event was attended by far-right luminaries such as Laura Loomer, a U.S. congressional candidate. Others supporters have advocated bombarding Disney’s hotel reservations line with phone calls to shut it down.
The QAnon proponents, operating on websites and social media, claim that Disney’s opposition to the Florida bill, and its various diversity initiatives, are attempts to “groom” children. That term was long meant to describe the tactics of child abusers, but some conservatives have used it as to describe what they see as indoctrination into acceptance of gay and transgender people.
QAnon has ventured into business issues before, most notably as the group agitated against lockdowns and Covid-19 vaccine mandates. In 2020, a concerted effort by multiple QAnon believers against the Netflix film “Cuties” spilled over into the mainstream, with a bipartisan group of senators sending separate letters to CEO Reed Hastings demanding answers about the film, which focused on preteen girls and their sexuality. Some research firms believe the uproar cut into Netflix’s subscriber growth.
Rarely has QAnon targeted an individual corporate giant for as sustained a period as the current fervor over Disney. Members discuss ways to try and bring the entertainment company down, from boycotts to the idea of purchasing put options, which they theorize would put pressure on the company’s shares. Others have tried to make a connection between convicted sex trafficker Ghislaine Maxwell and Disney, claims that were discredited by the Associated Press.
QAnon believers are not the only fringe group online who have joined the campaign against Disney. Some of the most prominent anti-vaccine groups on the internet have also been advocating against the company. Natural News, an anti-vaccine website credited with being a leading spreader of conspiracy theories long before the pandemic, has published unsubstantiated claims about Disney in recent months.
The furor is the latest chapter in a battle that also includes masks in schools and critical race theory, part of the broader culture war that has been unfolding around parental rights in the U.S., said Angelo Carusone, the chief executive officer of progressive watchdog Media Matters for America.
Disney, the home of Mickey Mouse, the “Frozen” princesses and the hit song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” is a target for conspiracy theorists because of its cultural dominance, according to Carusone. “If it wasn’t Disney, there wouldn’t have been the same visceral response,” he said.
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