Posts Maligning Disney as 'Grooming' Children Lack Evidence

by Ali Swenson

Associated Press

Wednesday April 13, 2022

The Walt Disney Co. logo appears on a screen above the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Aug. 7, 2017, in New York
The Walt Disney Co. logo appears on a screen above the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Aug. 7, 2017, in New York  (Source:AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

Online posts are using flawed logic and false information to malign The Walt Disney Co. as sympathetic to pedophiles or predatory toward young children after the company publicly opposed a Florida bill banning instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through 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've highlighted Disney employee arrests as alleged evidence of a companywide problem. They've pointed to Disney prioritizing diverse content as evidence of the company "grooming" kids.

But these attacks on Disney, which have escalated across social media since the bill passed in late March, are misleading and not supported by facts.

Here's a closer look at the facts.

CLAIM: Disney has close ties to the 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 pointed to three different examples of purported connections between Disney and Epstein, none of which stands up to further investigation.

The first claim involves snorkeling trips that a Disney-affiliated tour provider used to run near Little St. James Island, a small private island in the United States Virgin Islands that Epstein owned.

"REVEALED: Disney Was Sending Kids To Epstein's 'Pedophile Island' For 'Snorkeling Trips,'" read one widely shared headline.

Posts pointed to a website titled "Magical Kingdoms," which included a description of a 3.5-hour Disney Cruise Line affiliated tour that included a "snorkel stop" at Little St. James Island among other stops around the islands.

However, Disney confirmed in an emailed statement that the tour, which is no longer running, did not involve a stop at the island and had no relationship to it.

"The island, as well as another location, were included in the description of a third-party tour so that participants could identify the areas where snorkeling would be available," the statement read. "The tour had no connection to the island itself and Disney has never had plans involving the island."

The second claim — that Disney has plans to build a theme park on Little St. James Island — also has no basis in reality. Disney said it had no plans involving the island, and an internet search reveals 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 listed for sale," the spokesperson wrote. "However there are no plans to build a theme park on either island or any serious discussion of the issue."

For the third claim, social media users are sharing photos of Maxwell at a Disney-themed event in 1985 to suggest that Disney tacitly endorses someone who committed sex crimes against children.

But the photos don't prove that. According to a photo caption provided online by the U.K.-based Daily Mirror tabloid newspaper, they were captured at a Mirror fundraiser at a private residence in the U.K., which involved the presentation of a check to the Save the Children Fund. The only link to Disney was that the event used a Disney theme — hardly proof of a Disney endorsement.

The photos were also captured 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 claims about the Maxwell photos.

CLAIM: Authorities recently arrested 108 Disney employees for child pornography as part of a human trafficking sting operation.

THE FACTS: Four Disney employees along with 104 other people were arrested as part of a March 2022 law enforcement effort targeting human traffickers, child predators and people soliciting prostitution, according to Florida's Polk County Sheriff's Office, which made the arrests. Disney employees 190,000 people, according to its 2021 annual report.

The suspects who told detectives they were Disney employees included a lifeguard at a resort, a food service worker at a theme park and two people in information technology-related positions, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said during a news 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 attempting to solicit a prostitute, according to Judd.

Disney did not respond to a request for further comment.

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CLAIM: The CEO of The Walt Disney Company has been arrested for human trafficking in California.

THE FACTS: There is no record of any arrest of Disney CEO Bob Chapek, and the claim first appeared on a conservative blog that labels some of its content as satire.

A Twitter user elevated the blog's false claim in March, writing that "The CEO of Disney was arrested, and not one MSM outlet is reporting on it." The post received nearly 8,000 shares and more than 17,000 likes.

Chapek lives in Southern California under the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, according to federal records. Sgt. Jeff Walker of the Los Angeles Regional Human Trafficking Task Force confirmed to The Associated Press that his office had not made any human trafficking arrests related to Chapek.

Additionally, a federal database search returned no such records. The Walt Disney Company did not provide comment on the claims.

Twitter later removed the widely-circulating tweet "for violating our rules" and suspended the user who first shared it.

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CLAIM: Disney's decision to incorporate LGBTQ themes and characters into its content shows that the company is "grooming" children to be gay.

THE FACTS: The term "grooming" is being used on social media to undermine Disney's diversity initiatives, a tactic that also has been used at school board meetings across the country by parents who oppose discussions of sexual orientation in schools.

But that's a departure from the commonly understood meaning of grooming, according to experts, who say the term refers to specific tactics that sexual abusers use to initiate contact with their victims.

"Disney's Obsession With Grooming Children Is Nothing New, But Their Openness About It Is," read the headline of an article that discussed Disney's efforts to incorporate LGBTQ characters into its programs.

"Groomer-Gate: 15 Times Disney Promoted LGBTQAI2S+ in Children's Programing," read the headline of a conservative blog post that was later deleted.

These claims operate on a false premise that sexual orientation and gender identity are imposed upon kids, Catherine Oakley, state legislative director and senior counsel at the LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign previously told the AP. "It comes from just a really fundamentally wrong position about where a person's LGBTQ identity comes from."

Incorporating LGBTQ characters into Disney programming also isn't done to coerce a child into illegal activity. That would be a necessary feature to define someone's behavior as grooming, according to William O'Donohue, a psychologist who studies child sex abuse at the University of Reno.

Grooming refers to the "deceptive process" by which a would-be sexual-abuser chooses a vulnerable victim, gains access to them and isolates them, gains their trust and often their family's trust and community's trust, and then desensitizes them to sexual content and physical contact before the abuse happens, according to Elizabeth Jeglic, a psychologist who studies sexual violence prevention at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

"The way grooming has been used in the media as of late does not reflect sexual grooming as it has been described as in the research literature," Jeglic told the AP in an email. "Dilution of the term can be very dangerous because it is only now that we are starting to understand how predators use sexual grooming strategies to abuse children."

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This is part of AP's effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.

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