The photo of Princess Kate, the royal family and a conspiracy-obsessed Internet

Trace the digitally altered photograph of Catherine, Princess of Wales, and its roots lie in the tragedy of another Princess of Wales, Diana, whose death in 1997 preceded the creation of Facebook by almost seven years.

Diana’s fatal car crash, following a high-speed chase by photographers in Paris, left a lasting impression on her sons, William and Harry. They grew up vowing not to take part in what they saw as a pathological relationship between the royal family and the press, in which they were the abused partners.

The rise of social media gave this younger generation of royals a way around the tabloids they detested, with popular platforms like Instagram and Twitter where they could publish carefully curated news and images of themselves, without mediation from newspapers Londoners or lurking paparazzi.

But now they are experiencing the darker side of public life in the wild west of the web. Catherine’s photo, published on social media and picked up by newspapers and broadcasters around the world, was dragged into the vortex of rumors and conspiracy theories that have dogged her since she underwent abdominal surgery and disappeared from the eyes of the published two months ago.

While William and Harry have struggled with these forces, the pressure has perhaps been most acute on their wives, Catherine and Meghan, who have taken turns in the eye of the online storm. Meghan recently spoke out about the “hateful” treatment she endured while she was pregnant with his children.

“It must be really difficult to deal with all this,” said Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. “It is often women who are subjected to the worst harassment and bullying.”

Catherine, of course, inadvertently contributed to the hothouse atmosphere by altering a Mother’s Day photo of herself and her three children. This sparked a new firestorm of online speculation, with people sharing theories about how the image had been manipulated, whether by transposing Catherine’s head from a 2016 cover photo in Vogue magazine or recycling a photo of the family taken last November .

Visual investigators debunked both suggestions, but that didn’t stop the original posts from going viral, with one post promoting Vogue’s theory amassing more than 45 million views.

Having decided to control her image, Catherine now finds herself in a predicament not dissimilar to that of some of her royal ancestors, hounded by an online pack no less vicious than the photographers who pursued Diana in Paris.

“Anyone in the royal family or on their staff who thinks social media allows people to bypass gatekeepers or control the narrative has not paid attention to Meghan Markle’s experience,” Professor Nielsen said.

“These are deeply ambiguous spaces,” he said, “where the things people want are inextricably linked to things that are deeply troubling.”

William and Harry made their first foray into social media in 2015, when, together with Catherine, they opened Twitter and Instagram accounts. A the first post showed Harrytiptoeing next to 7-foot-2-inch retired American basketball star Dikembe Mutombo during a youth training program.

When Harry met Meghan, an American actress, the following year, he found himself faced with a passionate and savvy social media user. Meghan ran her own lifestyle blog, The Tig, which she described as a “hub for picky eaters”. Cosmopolitan magazine once said she was “on track to become the next Goop,” the wellness brand owned by actress Gwyneth Paltrow.

Meghan shut down The Tig after her romance with Harry became public. But she brought her astute use of social media with her into the royal family. When the couple announced in 2020 that they intended to step back from royal duties, they broke the news on Instagram and posted their plans on Sussex Royal, a site designed by the same Toronto-based digital firm that designed The Tig.

When Meghan was targeted by offensive language online, Harry blamed it on hostile and racist press coverage. In her memoir, “Spare,” she wrote that, in the 18 months leading up to her wedding in 2018, Meghan’s incessant tabloid coverage had “railed at all the trolls, who were now crawling out of their cellars and dens”.

“Ever since we acknowledged we were a couple,” Harry said, “we have been inundated with racial slurs and death threats on social media.”

However, in Catherine’s case, the lack of press coverage may have contributed to the proliferation of online rumors. Kensington Palace, where she and her husband William have their offices, erected a veil of privacy around Catherine after her surgery, offering few details about her condition or her recovery, other than to say she would return at work after Easter.

“The near silence about Kate’s health, which she is perfectly entitled to observe, has spooked the media and generated a social media frenzy which has fueled the mainstream media,” said Peter Hunt, a former royal correspondent for the BBC.

Despite all the ravenous coverage of the royal family, some topics are off-limits. For example, rumors about William and Catherine’s wedding have long been circulating in the dark depths of the web. But it rarely, if ever, surfaces in newspapers, which adhere to strict privacy guidelines enforced by Britain’s robust libel laws.

When a grainy photo of Catherine in a car with her mother appeared on US gossip site TMZ last week, British newspapers did not publish it out of deference to Kensington Palace’s appeal for her to be allowed to recover in peace.

Even now, in the wake of Catherine’s confession to having retouched the photo, some tabloids have rallied to her defense. “Sack Kate,” reads the front page of The Sun, published by Rupert Murdoch and which generally offers generous coverage of the princess. “The attacks against the modified image are absurd,” he added.

The risk for the royal family, experts say, is that Catherine’s manipulation of the photo casts doubt on other news and images released by them, depriving the royals of a useful channel to reach younger people. Some tabloids were openly skeptical of her. “How did Kate’s photo become a PR disaster?” asked the Daily Mail. “Kate’s photobomb!” said the Metro tabloid.

“Social media should be a win-win for the royals, a means to spread their message unchallenged and undiluted,” Hunt said. “While most will likely forgive and forget, the risk is an erosion of trust, an important asset for the monarchy.”

The credibility of the royal family may not be the only possibility. Professor Nielsen noted that, in a recent survey, 69% of people in Britain said they were concerned about what is real and what is fake on the Internet. And that was before the swirling vortex of rumors and misinformation about Catherine.

“This could further intensify people’s skepticism towards much of what they see, both from the media and social media,” he said. “These have not been great days for people’s trust in the information environment.”