By ALI SWENSON, Associated Press
Online posts are using flawed logic and misinformation to smear The Walt Disney Co. as sympathetic to pedophiles or predatory toward young children after the company publicly opposed a Florida bill banning teaching on sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten to third grade.
Posts shared thousands of times on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have attempted to link Disney to the late sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. They pointed to the arrests of Disney employees as alleged evidence of a company-wide problem. They pointed out that Disney prioritizes diverse content as proof that the company is “preparing” children.
But these attacks on Disney, which have intensified on social media since the bill was passed in late March, are misleading and unsupported by facts.
Here’s a closer look at the facts.
CLAIM: Disney has close ties to disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein and his ex-girlfriend Ghislaine Maxwell, who was convicted of luring young girls to be sexually abused by him.
THE FACTS: These claims are not supported by evidence. Social media posts in recent weeks have highlighted three different instances of alleged relationships between Disney and Epstein, none of which stand up to further investigation.
The first claim relates to snorkeling excursions that a Disney-affiliated tour operator once organized near Little St. James Island, a small private island in the US Virgin Islands owned by Epstein.
“REVEALED: Disney was sending children to Epstein’s ‘pedophile island’ for ‘snorkeling trips,'” read a widely shared headline.
The posts pointed to a website titled “Magical Kingdoms,” which included a description of a 3.5-hour Disney Cruise Line affiliate tour that included a “snorkel stop” at Little St. James Island, among other places. stops around the islands.
However, Disney confirmed in an emailed statement that the tour, which is no longer running, does not involve a stop on the island and has no connection to it.
“The island, along with one other location, has been included in the description of a third-party tour so attendees can identify areas where snorkeling would be available,” the statement read. “The tour had no connection to the island itself and Disney never had any plans involving the island.
The second claim — that Disney intends to build a theme park on Little St. James Island — also has no basis in reality. Disney has said it has no plans involving the island, and an internet search turns up no legitimate news reports contradicting that. A spokesperson for Epstein’s estate also confirmed in an email that the claim was false.
“The islands known as Little St. James and Great St. James are currently up for sale,” the spokesperson wrote. “However, there are no plans to build a theme park on either island or seriously discuss the matter.”
For the third claim, social media users shared photos of Maxwell at a Disney-themed event in 1985 to suggest that Disney was tacitly endorsing someone who committed child sex crimes.
But the pictures don’t prove it. According to a photo caption provided online by the British tabloid Daily Mirror, they were captured during a Mirror fundraiser at a private residence in the UK, which involved the presentation of a check to the Save the Children Fund. The only connection to Disney was that the event used a Disney theme – barely any evidence of a Disney endorsement.
The photos were also taken before Maxwell met Epstein, according to her own recollection in a 2016 deposition, when she said she met Epstein in 1991.
The Mirror did not respond to an emailed request for comment, and Disney did not respond to complaints about Maxwell’s photos.
CLAIM: Authorities recently arrested 108 Disney employees for child pornography in a human trafficking sting operation.
THE FACTS: Four Disney employees along with 104 others were arrested in a March 2022 law enforcement effort targeting human traffickers, child predators and those soliciting prostitution , according to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office in Florida, which made the arrests. Disney employs 190,000 people, according to its 2021 annual report.
Suspects who told detectives they were Disney employees included a lifeguard at a resort, a catering worker at a theme park and two people in information technology positions, the sheriff said. of Polk County, Grady Judd, at a press conference.
One of the four was arrested for allegedly sending sexual images and graphic texts to an undercover detective posing as a 14-year-old girl, while the other three were arrested for allegedly trying to solicit a prostitute , according to Judd.
Disney did not respond to a request for additional comment.
CLAIM: The CEO of The Walt Disney Company was arrested for human trafficking in California.
THE FACTS: There are no records of Disney CEO Bob Chapek’s arrest, and the claim first appeared on a conservative blog that calls some of its content satire.
A Twitter user elevated the blog’s false claim in March, writing that “the CEO of Disney has been arrested, and no MSM media is talking about it.” The post received nearly 8,000 shares and over 17,000 likes.
Chapek lives in Southern California under the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, according to federal records. sergeant. Jeff Walker of the Los Angeles Regional Human Trafficking Task Force confirmed to The Associated Press that his office has not made any arrests for human trafficking related to Chapek.
Additionally, a search of the federal database returned no such records. The Walt Disney Company did not provide comment on the allegations.
Twitter then deleted the widely circulated tweet “for breaking our rules” and suspended the user who first shared it.
CLAIM: Disney’s decision to incorporate LGBTQ themes and characters into its content shows that the company is “preparing” children to be gay.
THE FACTS: The term “grooming” is used on social media to undermine Disney’s diversity initiatives, a tactic that has also been used at school board meetings across the country by parents who oppose discussions about sexual orientation in schools.
But that’s a departure from the commonly accepted meaning of grooming, experts say, who say the term refers to specific tactics sex offenders use to get in touch with their victims.
“Disney’s obsession with grooming children is nothing new, but their openness about it is,” reads the title of an article that discusses Disney’s efforts to incorporate LGBTQ characters. in its programs.
“Groomer-Gate: 15 Times Disney Promoted LGBTQAI2S+ in Kids’ Shows,” read the title of a conservative blog post that was later deleted.
These claims are based on a false premise that sexual orientation and gender identity are forced upon children, Catherine Oakley, state legislative director and senior counsel for the LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights, previously told the AP. Campaign. “It comes from a really fundamentally flawed position about where a person’s LGBTQ identity comes from.”
Nor is incorporating LGBTQ characters into Disney programming intended to coerce a child into illegal activities. It would be a necessary characteristic to define someone’s behavior as grooming, according to William O’Donohue, a psychologist who studies child sexual abuse at the University of Reno.
Grooming refers to the “deceptive process” by which a potential sexual abuser selects a vulnerable victim, gains access to and isolates her, gains her trust and often that of her family and community, and then desensitizes her to sexual content and contact. before the abuse occurs, according to Elizabeth Jeglic, a psychologist who studies sexual violence prevention at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
“The way grooming has been used in the media lately does not reflect sexual grooming as it has been portrayed in the research literature,” Jeglic told the AP in an email. “The dilution of the term can be very dangerous because it is only now that we are beginning to understand how predators use sexual grooming strategies to abuse children.”
This is part of AP’s efforts to combat widely shared misinformation, including working with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.
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