In Reddit communities such as R/Superstonk or R/BBBY, Chewy co-founder and GameStop Chairman Ryan Cohen is often hailed as a hero, memorialized in face-swap memes or placed at the center of “tinfoil hat” theories.
“He is the god figure of the meme-stock community,” said Evan, a Reddit user who spoke with CNBC on condition we do not use his full name for fear of online retaliation. “I’m worried that when they see someone talking about how Ryan Cohen isn’t god and their conspiracy theories aren’t correct, they will see a target that needs to be taken down for the better good. And on this spectrum of delusion — because you must be delusional to believe in these conspiracy theories — there will be people on the extreme end of that delusion.”
The conspiracy theories Evan refers to can be traced to the beginning of the meme-stock movement in 2021 and to GameStop, the original meme stock.
Brandon, a Reddit user who also asked we only use his first name, said he invested in GameStop because of the “craze that was happening” and how much attention the company was garnering on Reddit.
“This was a movement,” said Brandon, who used to be a self-proclaimed “ape,” a term Reddit users prescribe to stock traders on the site who stick together. “It wasn’t just a bunch of people trying to get rich.”
When Cohen joined the GameStop board in January 2021, and then assumed the role of chairman that June, he became a figurehead for the movement. Cohen, who rarely speaks publicly and does very little press, emerged as a regular subject of discussion in these online communities, and his every move began to be analyzed by Reddit users who were searching for investment clues.
Prior to jumping into GameStop, Cohen had co-founded pet food retailer Chewy and then became an activist investor.
Cohen “came across that he was on the side of retail investors,” said Arfan, a Reddit user who invested in GameStop at the time.
When Cohen tweets, discussions ensue on Reddit, with users coming up with theories on when price movements will occur within their preferred stock holdings.
GameStop Chairman Ryan Cohen.
Sue Guan, assistant professor of law at Santa Clara University School of Law, says for retail investors, Cohen’s tweets fall in the category of “nontraditional forms of information to make their investment decisions.”
“He would post all sorts of vague nonsense, really, and all these people thought he was talking to them in code,” says Brandon.
GameStop shares soared 1,625% in January 2021, including a 400% gain in one week. Traders on Reddit teamed up to push the stock higher and squeeze the short sellers, who were betting on a drop in the stock.
Larry Cheng, a GameStop board member and former Chewy investor, said he’s aware people look at Cohen’s tweets, and his as well, for hidden messages.
“I think we wish people wouldn’t scrutinize them,” Cheng said. “We’d rather people just take the tweets at face value and not impute some sort of ulterior meaning in any of them.”
A source close to Cohen said he avoids touting his holdings or giving investment advice and is “just being himself on Twitter.”
The two main stocks Reddit users tie to Cohen are GameStop and Bed Bath & Beyond, in which he briefly held a large stake in 2022. The company has since filed for bankruptcy. Still, Reddit communities such as R/BBBY are hopeful for Cohen’s return, and members of the community have theories about when and how the company’s stock price will skyrocket.
After market close Wednesday, GameStop fired CEO Matthew Furlong and appointed Cohen as executive chairman effective immediately. The stock dropped more than 20% in extended trading after the disclosure. The company didn’t provide a reason for the firing.
The filing said Cohen will be in charge of capital allocation, evaluating potential investments and acquisitions and overseeing the managers of GameStop’s holdings.
“Not for long,” Cohen tweeted, about a half hour after the announcement.
For more on the fanatical following behind Ryan Cohen, check out CNBC Documentaries’ “Making of the Meme King” on Peacock or stream it on CNBC.com.