Why everyone seems hooked on Katespiracies

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Last week, following the previous edition of this newsletter, I was asked by a number of TV channels and radio stations to try and explain why the public were unable to accept documentary proof that the Princess of Wales was – as Kensington Palace said – recovering from an abdominal operation.

One of the questions that I was asked most frequently was a simple one: “What could the Palace do to quash the rumours?”

I explained that I thought they couldn’t. This has taken on a half-life of its own on the internet, and become a full-blown conspiracy that could never be quelled.

Which is why online the reaction to a new video, released earlier this week by The Sun and Hollywood gossip website TMZ, and designed to – as the newspaper describes – “bring to an end what the Palace has called ‘the madness of social media’” has been depressingly familiar.

Far from putting out the flames, it’s fanned them.

Confronted with video evidence that the Prince and Princess of Wales visited a farm shop near their Windsor home last weekend, many have turned around and said they don’t believe what they’ve seen.

For some, the idea that Christmas-style huts would still be up in March was scarcely believable (except ITV reporters on the scene on Tuesday morning showed they’re still there). The shaky, zoomed-in footage taken on a smartphone distorted Kate’s face – evidence, online commentators claim, that the Royal Family chose instead to parade a not-very-good doppelganger out in public in place of one of the world’s most recognised women.

The Sun newspaper on a stand in central London which shows the Princess of Wales with the Prince of Wales during a visit to a farm shop in Windsor. Picture date: Tuesday March 19, 2024. PA Photo. See PA story ROYAL Kate. Photo credit should read: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire
The Sun‘s front page had stills from its video of the Princess of Wales’ resurfacing (Photo: PA)

Even BBC sports presenter Sonja McLaughlan tweeted on Tuesday the footage from Windsor was “obviously not Kate” and “it’s disturbing that newspapers are reporting this as fact”. She has subsequently deleted the tweet and made her account private.

Tech CEO Christopher Bouzy, who appeared in Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s Netflix documentary, has also been sharing videos of the Prince and Princess of Wales, claiming “we still haven’t seen Kate in public”.

In short, we’ve reached the delusional chapter of the news cycle. And that’s dangerous.

A pack of lies

The media diet we’re being fed – through social media and traditional methods – highlighting the conspiracies and treating them as credulous has an impact on our belief in subsequent news.

That’s the findings of a recent study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and elsewhere, which looked at how repeatedly viewing outlandish claims affected people’s ability to perceive subsequent outlandish, but less so, ones. The wilder the fake news you saw initially, the more believable you found future claims that also stretched the truth.

Big lies make little lies more convincing.

And in the last few weeks, the lies have piled up about the Princess , and run the gamut from serious injury, death and marriage breakdown.

The picture of the Princess of Wales with her three children, released on Mother’s Day, that sent the internet into a frenzy (Photo: @Kensingtonroyal)

Definitely cock-up…

We are seeing the chaos that happens when diametrically opposed approaches to transparency, media management and understanding of how the world works today head hurtling towards each other at pace – and collide.

The Royal Family has famously tried to maintain a mystique about their actions, believing that it lends them an air of elegance and intrigue that keeps them special. It has been for years the supposed secret to their success, where other royal lineages have petered out in the public consciousness.

But that approach doesn’t reckon for the radical transparency in which most people live nowadays, through the internet and social media – nor does it account for the voracious appetite of individuals to wittingly or unwittingly stir the pot.

“Conspiracy theories have always affected the Royal Family over the years,” said Dr Amarnath Amarasingam, a professor at Queen’s University in Toronto, Canada, who studies conspiracy theories online.

“They are in some ways the perfect target – they thrive off secrecy and privacy, except for highly curated drips of information they allow into the public, there’s a public fascination with their lifestyle and history, and there’s a sense that they have vast amounts of unearned generational wealth and privilege.”

…probably not conspiracy

All of which makes it seem like the solution is simple: get rid of the highly curated drips, go public, and quash the conspiratorial thinking. The late Queen Elizabeth II once said that the Royal Family has to be seen to be believed.

When she said that, to justify why she and her family members had to cross the length and breadth of the country to open village fetes and attend award ceremonies, she likely didn’t realise it would literally be a matter of life and death for some non-believers. But that’s where we are now.

The problem is, that might not work. “The thing about conspiracy theories is that they don’t disappear with contradictory evidence,” said Amarasingam. “The evidence is often seamlessly woven into the conspiracy theory, because the evidence itself comes to be seen as part of the conspiracy.”

Put simply, once you get to being at the centre of a conspiracy theory, it’s already too late.

“The absence of evidence is seen as evidence of a conspiracy, and then the presence of well-timed evidence is seen as evidence of conspiracy,” he added.

A right royal game plan

So we come back to that central question: if we’ve all got mass hysteria around the Princess of Wales story, unable to believe what we see, then what should the Palace do?

“We’re way past the point of official statements, staged photos or grainy videos – at this point nothing short of a live public appearance will convince many people that any photos or videos aren’t manipulated or even fake,” said Rob Topinka, senior lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London. “Even then, many people are simply having too much fun coming up with theories to explain Kate’s seeming disappearance.”

Their years-long approach of “never complain, never explain” has shown itself to be useless in the face of such hysteria. Its attempt to kowtow to the online mob by providing proof of life pictures has backfired.

“I’ve always said that arguing back against conspiracy theories is a bit like punching a waterfall. There’s really no point. You have to just let the ideas run their course until something new comes up,” said Topinka.

This is i’s science and tech newsletter. If you’d like to get this direct to your inbox, every single week, you can sign up here.