Christopher Rufo knows exactly what he’s doing. When the conservative activist, who invented the outrage over critical rage theory, this week released footage of an internal Disney all-hands meeting where employees and executives used terms like “gay agenda” and “adding queerness” to characters in the studio’s shows and movies, the result was predictable.
Within hours, right-wing talk show hosts like Tucker Carlson, Ben Shapiro, Candace Owens, and Laura Ingraham were terrifying their huge audiences into believing that Disney was part of the widespread liberal conspiracy to indoctrinate, groom, or traffic children using their animated characters and shows.
The response is almost an unconscious reflex at this point, and while it comes with no QAnon branding, the origins of these conspiracy theories are obvious.
For years QAnon has promoted the idea that a group of liberal elites is running an underground child sex trafficking operation across the globe. And now every time an issue like trans rights or sexual orientation makes headlines, conservative media falls back on a wild conspiracy that was dreamed up in the fever swamps of 4chan in 2017.
Disney is just the latest in a long line of targets to be smeared with QAnon-esque conspiracy theories. Whether it’s George Soros, Ketanji Brown Jackson, President Joe Biden, or even the theory of evolution, it increasingly seems that the right’s favorite play is making accusations vaguely referencing the conspiracies espoused by QAnon.
Conservative anger and frustration at Disney have been building for weeks after its CEO backtracked and came out against the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida, which was signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday.
Disney CEO Bob Chapek had received huge blowback from his own employees after it was revealed that the company had donated $200,000 to the Florida Republicans behind the bill, which bans classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten through the third grade.
Disney is now seeking to have the law repealed, which has made it a target for the right, who are fully behind the new law.
“Their main, quote, ‘goal’ as a company is now to teach kindergartners in Florida that they can in fact change their gender just by wishing it so,” Carlson said on his top-rated show about Disney’s new stance. “It makes you wonder if kids in Florida can consent to chemical castration with no parental involvement.”
The right conflating gayness with predatory behavior is nothing new, but it now comes with added QAnon.
“This isn’t programming, this is propaganda for grooming,” Laura Ingraham said on her Fox News show on Wednesday. The term “grooming” has recently become a widely-used phrase among conservative supporters of the Florida’s bill. Those who use it never say what the people doing the grooming are grooming the children for, but it’s clear that it’s something creepy and dangerous, such as a child sex trafficking operation run by liberals, perhaps.
None of the right-wing commentators slamming Disney this week referred to QAnon. Ever since the Jan. 6 attack, where QAnon played a major role, those pushing the conspiracy have sought to distance themselves from the brand, while continuing to spread the baseless conspiracies on which the movement is built.
By leaving it unsaid, they are allowing their viewers to fill in the gaps with whatever conspiracy theories they like.
A quick scroll through the QAnon channels on Telegram or on QAnon message boards confirms that Disney is now considered a sworn enemy of the movement, with believers emboldened by the comments made by Carlson and Ingraham.
“I grew up with it,” one member of a popular QAnon channel on Telegram wrote on Thursday. “My parents are pass holders and are planning on not renewing. I have no plans to go to the park either. My kids, in elementary school, also are red-pilled and know how things have been going, and are OK with never watching new stuff or going to the parks. We have a huge library of the old movies, which we can watch as we want. [I don’t know] if my [boyfriend] is planning on canceling Disney+, if it was me I would’ve canceled it today.”
But even more worryingly, the dog whistles from the right will also help convert those who previously hadn’t fallen down the QAnon rabbit hole.
“I know next to nothing about QAnon, but I’m told that among the things they believe is that a global cabal of elites promotes pedophelia,” one Twitter user wrote this week. “Sounds insane until you read what the Disney boss is saying and doing.”
Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.