As ‘where’s Kate’ conspiracy theories run wild, here’s how the story became such a royal mess

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It started with an official announcement that Catherine, Princess of Wales, had been admitted to the hospital for “planned abdominal surgery,” and an acknowledgement that she “appreciates the interest this statement will generate.”

Almost two months later, #KateGate is trending on social media, an American talk show is “spilling the tea” about unconfirmed affair rumours involving Prince William, the Washington Post ripped him in an editorial cartoon depicting him manipulating a puppet of his wife in front of a palace window, and internet sleuths are picking apart every photo ever released by Kensington Palace. All of this comes as the public repeatedly asks: Where’s Kate?

As media outlets and royal commentators around the world have noted, “interest” may have been an understatement.

From the beginning, Kensington Palace was clear: Catherine was unlikely to return to public duties until after Easter, and the palace would only provide updates “when there is significant new information to share.”

But in an information vacuum, people have created their own theories — some of them funny, some of them dark, none of them confirmed.

“Things just keep getting crazy. You think they can’t and then they do,” Ellie Hall, former royal correspondent for BuzzFeed News, told CBC’s Front Burner Wednesday.

“There are the jokes, there are the memes, but a lot of people are really feeling if they’re telling the truth about this and Kate is well and Kate’s on the mend, why did these weird things keep happening? Are they trying to cover something up?”

Whether something goes “viral” comes down to timing and public interest, and this controversy nailed both, said Shana MacDonald, an associate professor in communication arts at the University of Waterloo who studies pop culture and social media.

“The internet is always looking for a new story and new cycle to grab onto and run with,” MacDonald told CBC News.

“This one emerged from public-generated conspiracy shared on social media, which makes it easy to become viral if it hits public interest at the right time.

“This was even more ready to spread widely due to the monarchy’s PR response, which was not strong and added even more questions and fuel to the unending theories.” 

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What we know about Catherine

Questions have swirled about the health of Catherine since Jan. 17, when Kensington Palace announced Catherine’s planned surgery. At that point, she hadn’t been seen publicly since Christmas Day. The statement offered no other details, other than clarifying her condition wasn’t cancerous.

In late January, the palace said in a statement that Catherine was making “good progress,” and was back at home in Windsor.

Then, when Prince William cancelled his appearance at King Constantine’s memorial service for “personal matters” on Feb. 27, theories reached a fever pitch. The hashtag #WheresKate and the term “Kate Middleton” took off on X, formerly Twitter.

  • Just Asking wants to know: What questions do you have about spotting doctored images online? Have you ever fallen for a dupe? Fill out the details on this form to send us your questions and concerns ahead of the show.

A spokesperson for the princess made a statement to several media outlets on Feb. 29 to dispel the rumours, saying she’s “doing well.”

But further questions about her health status were raised March 5, when the British military announced Catherine would attend a Trooping the Colour ceremony in June, apparently without consulting palace officials. An unauthorized, grainy photo of Catherine apparently riding in a car driven by her mother was published the same week, further fuelling speculation, with many people questioning whether the picture was even really her.

Catherine sits in a chair with two children standing on either side and one behind them. All are smiling. At a first glance and without zooming in nothing appears wrong with the photo.
This undated photo issued on March 10 by Kensington Palace shows Catherine, Princess of Wales, with her children. Major news agencies, including The Associated Press, Getty Images, Reuters and AFP, subsequently retracted the image. The Associated Press said that the image ‘shows an inconsistency in the alignment of Princess Charlotte’s left hand.’ (Kensington Royal/X)

And then, on Sunday, things somehow got much worse when Kensington Palace released a new photo of Catherine and her children.

Several major news agencies that initially published the photo, including The Associated Press, Reuters, Getty Images and AFP pulled it just hours later, citing concerns about digital manipulation. The retractions sent the online rumour mill, already rampant with speculation over Catherine’s operation and recuperation, into overdrive.

The Princess of Wales apologized Monday for “confusion” caused by her editing of the image. Kensington Palace said it would not release the original unedited photograph.

Michelle Chen, an assistant professor in communication, pop culture and film at Brock University, says the public interest, speculation and conspiracy theories about Catherine are reminiscent of events that reflect distrust in institutions such as the government or media, a general lack of information, and uncertainty.

And this can fuel people to seek out and latch onto conspiracy theories that reaffirm their pre-existing beliefs.

“Generally, explanations that evoke strong emotional appeals like fear, humour, anger or anxiety increase the spread of certain explanations for the ‘disappearance’ of Kate Middleton over others,” Chen told CBC News.

Why #KateGate has taken off

Online, people have made tongue-in-cheek posts that the princess is growing out bangs or recovering from a Brazilian butt lift. Many people have theorized that William might be having an affair, that Catherine might be much sicker than the palace is letting on, or joked that Camilla is having her “Saltburn moment” and has been playing the long game to destroy the Royal Family from the inside out.

“Let’s dish the hot goss. I’m ready to spill the tea!” late night talk-show host Stephen Colbert said during his show’s monologue Tuesday while gleefully digging into the affair rumours.

By Thursday afternoon, #KateGate was trending on X in Canada, with 53,200 posts. A TikTok video with 1.6 million views claims the newest photo of Catherine and her children was actually taken in November. People are joking that she’s starring in a new Hallmark movie, that she’s on The Masked Singer and that she’s actually dead.

While William made a few public appearances Thursday, he didn’t mention Catherine other than to refer to her as “the arty one” during a cookie decorating event, according to the Independent.

A person walks behind two other people.
Princess Kate attends the Christmas Morning Service at Sandringham Church on Dec. 25, 2023, in Sandringham, Norfolk. This was the last time Catherine was photographed in public. (Stephen Pond/Getty Images)

“If it’s a slow news cycle and people are looking to be distracted from the endless stream of bleak news on climate and geopolitics, then popular culture events can really capture the public imagination,” MacDonald said.

And part of the intense public interest in Catherine is because she’s a become modern-day figure for the monarchy, she added. The Princess of Wales is a key part of their effort to rebrand and stay relevant, she said, and has consistently done that job well.

“She is poised, stylish, restrained, very in keeping with the overall monarchy’s image,” MacDonald said.

“Any sense of disruption from this well-curated image will pique interest because her husband is both next in line for the throne but also the son of Princess Diana.” 

WATCH | Apology likely the last we’ll hear on this: 

Apology over edited image likely ‘last we will hear’ from palace on picture, royal watcher says

Katie Nicholl, a royal commentator, says an edited photo and subsequent apology from the Princess of Wales has taken on a ‘life of its own’ because of Catherine’s lack of visibility following surgery.

And many people are actually delighting in the misinformation, Hall, the former BuzzFeed correspondent, told Front Burner. People are saying the saga has made social media interesting and fun again.

“You have this genuine sense of worry for Kate, and then you have the ‘wow, isn’t it sort of nice to have this big public scandal, this big information void that we can theorize about all day long and make jokes about?'” she said.

“As much of an issue as misinformation is, there’s something innately human and that speaks to the storyteller within all of us that really, really loves an information vacuum.”





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