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25 March 2024

Kate Middleton and our conspiracy culture

Wild theories about the princess, who has announced she has cancer, are a symptom of a digital world defined by speculation, sleuthing and conspiratorial thinking.

By Sarah Manavis

Amid the messages of shock and support for the royal family following the announcement on Friday that Kate Middleton is undergoing treatment for cancer, social media was awash with another type of post: mea culpas. Thousands shared their deep regret and embarrassment at having participated in the conspiracy theories about Middleton’s health and whereabouts, which had dominated mainstream and online media for months.

What started as a few people noticing discrepancies between official Palace statements and the Princess of Wales’ personal schedule quickly snowballed into a global search to find out what was really happening to her. First, the announcement on 17 January that Kate had undergone “planned” surgery and would not be returning to her royal duties until Easter triggered questions about how the procedure could have been pre-arranged, when she and William were meant to travel to Italy in the same period. Conjecture increased when Kate still hadn’t been seen in public almost six weeks later, and Prince William suddenly pulled out of a memorial service. A conveniently timed tabloid photo that appeared on 4 March caused social media users to speculate it wasn’t really her. But the frenzy peaked when, on Mother’s Day a week later, a photo of Kate and her three children – allegedly taken by William – appeared to be badly doctored. A few hours later, after going viral online, the photo was disowned by trusted newswires for being digitally manipulated. A strange statement was then credited to Middleton on the Wales’ official social media accounts apologising for her “amateur” photo edits.

It’s hard to overstate the subsequent mania. For nearly two months, social media posts speculating on the princess’s whereabouts went viral on an hourly basis, alongside articles and news pieces from major outlets. The pace of media obsession has been accelerated by the fact that the royal family – and this couple in particular – are the subject of global fascination (as an American growing up in a small Ohio town, I didn’t bat an eyelid when Kate and William’s wedding was broadcast on every TV throughout the day in my school). The theories rushing to fill the perceived holes in the Palace narrative ranged from the believable to the far-fetched: that Kate had a different surgery, that she and William were experiencing marital issues, that she was in a coma, that any public appearance was a body double, that she had died. The conjecture was added to by a video – blurry, taken from a distance – of the couple at a farm shop in Windsor that surfaced on 18 March – an appearance perhaps intended to quash the frenzy, but which only served to feed it.

Despite the absurdity of some of the theories, many people were sucked into the swirl of rumours. The “where’s Kate?” story held the attention of a much broader demographic than the usual stereotypes of conspiracy theorists (at times, myself included). This was partly the result of the story’s strange potency – it involved one of the most powerful family institutions in the world; concerned the safety of a female outsider, when the women on the institution’s fringes have been treated controversially in the past; and included clear evidence of photo manipulation. But it also became a tipping point in internet culture, which breeds an often reasonable distrust of what we see online. Rather than proving the suspicions wrong, the Palace’s disastrous PR around Middleton’s health has only validated this way of thinking. 

The past decade has seen the public slowly realise how influential conspiracy theories can be. Conspiratorial thinking was once deemed to be the preserve of flat-Earth truthers, 9/11 conspiracy theorists, moon landing hoax-believers, and others on the fringes of society. But now we see conspiratorial attitudes in people holding public office and running prominent companies, earnestly stating that the pandemic was cooked up by Bill Gates, that white people are being intentionally overtaken by minorities, and even affirming the belief that Donald Trump led a crusade against a group of rich and famous child traffickers. Those conspiracy theories are easier for most of us to dismiss outright as patently untrue.

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But we have also seen the rise in online sleuthing, influenced by the popularity of true-crime entertainment. Ordinary people spend hours combing through publicly available information online to help solve real-life murder cases and other mysteries – for better and worse. When Nicola Bulley disappeared in 2023, in an incident the police did not deem suspicious, tens of millions of videos were posted espousing baseless theories about her whereabouts, causing distress to her family. This happened only a year after the American influencer, Gabby Petito, went missing while travelling with her boyfriend, again provoking millions of people into making crass guesses at what had happened before her body was also discovered. The rare occasions when the public uncovers something that police investigators missed have fuelled the delusion that online sleuthing is a moral right.

The normalisation of these online trends has led us to the feverish obsession with Kate Middleton. But they are compounded by a reasonable distrust in public institutions such as the royal family, as well as an understandable, even healthy suspicion of the images and videos we see online. The sudden spike in AI-generated images in the past year – and an already sharp rise in misinformation in the past decade – has made us legitimately wary of the information in our social media feeds. We have been told that to be responsible internet users we should heavily scrutinise our timelines, check facts and use our best judgement before we believe the things we see.

Since Kate Middleton’s cancer announcement, the question of how we maintain a healthy scepticism of what we see online without succumbing to conspiratorial thinking – a balance that already felt difficult to strike – has been replaced with more urgent questions about when public interest becomes a private intrusion. But this story was in part caused by the Palace miscalculating how much information to give to the public, resulting in a PR narrative that was full of holes, and a widespread sense that the full story was being suppressed – which, far from dispelling conspiratorial thinking, has now reinforced it. This failure – which comes at a sick mother’s expense – exacerbates an already serious problem.

When looking for someone to blame for the rise in conspiratorial thinking, it’s easy to villainise individuals who have stoked conspiracy theories to attract more viewers. But the recent frenzy around Kate shows that the problem goes deeper. It’s the logical result of Big Tech corporations happily benefiting from loosely regulated technology that allows misinformation to spread – leaving individuals to fend for themselves, and feeling no moral responsibility for the havoc caused – and total negligence from our most powerful institutions, particularly those such as the royal family which trade on public engagement. And while the plague of conspiracism can’t easily be stopped, it could be dramatically improved. Honesty, transparency and harsh repercussions for those that evade responsibility could undo much of our culture of distrust, but there are few incentives for those in power to relinquish the immense wealth and control they have. Why give all that up for the sake of something as trifling as our collective sanity?

Kate Middleton and her family deserve sympathy. This saga has not only failed to protect their peace, it has compounded a societal problem that damages us all.

[See also: The grim return of Alex Jones]

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