Nearly a week after Kate Middleton announced her cancer diagnosis in an emotional video shared with the public, the conspiracy theories about her health and marriage have seemed to subside. But in its aftermath, the fervor has raised questions about how the public speculation became so viral in the first place. On Monday, a member of parliament asked Oliver Dowden, the UK’s deputy prime minister, if the British government was worried about foreign interference causing the conspiracy theories to spread, following a Telegraph report citing government sources’ concern about possible intervention from Russia, China, and Iran.

In response, Dowden declined to share the names of any specific countries, but he did reiterate the concern about disinformation pertaining to the royal family proliferating on the internet. “[I] extend my best wishes to members of the royal family at this very difficult time,” he said. “The appalling speculation that we have seen over the past few weeks comes as a reminder to us all that it is important for us to ensure that we deal with valid and trusted information, and are appropriately skeptical about many online sources.”

According to one prominent disinformation researcher, there is reason to believe that Russia did have a hand in spreading some of the conspiracy theories about the Princess of Wales after she took time off from her public duties following a January abdominal surgery. On Wednesday, The New York Times spoke to Martin Innes, a professor at Cardiff University who leads their Security, Crime and Intelligence Innovation Institute, about his research connecting 45 social media accounts spreading claims about the princess to “a Kremlin-linked disinformation network” commonly nicknamed Doppelgänger. 

After Kate and Prince William were spotted at the Windsor Farm Shop earlier this month, Doppelgänger-connected accounts reposted claims that the photos and videos published by The Sun were fake. Though Innes’s research could not prove who hired the network to post about the princess, the Times reports that its previous actions have targeted people and countries at odds with the Kremlin. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine in February 2022, the royal family have been outspoken in their support for the country, and William and Kate have hosted Prime Minister Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the palace on multiple occasions. 

Innes notes that disinformation networks might also be motivated to attack the British royal family in order to deepen a sense of chaos and erode trust in Western institutions. “It provokes an emotional reaction,” he said of the influence campaign. “The story was already being framed in conspiracy terms, so you can appeal to those people. And people who support the royal family get angry.”

Just last week, Russian media had a more overt hand in spreading misinformation about the royals. On March 18, the Telegram app for Moscow-based business newspaper Vedomosti posted a message that claimed King Charles III had died. Other outlets in the country repeated the claim and eventually Buckingham Palace released a statement denying the rumor, adding that the king “is continuing with official and private business.”

The royals have a long history as pawns in international propaganda campaigns. In October 1937, for example, the recently abdicated King Edward VIII met with Adolf Hitler in Germany, during a visit where he surveyed Nazi factories and even a concentration camp. Photographs from the visit were published in newspapers across the world. In the 21st century, the royals are invoked more subtly in disinformation campaigns. In 2022, the AFP’s Bill McCarthy reported that the September death of Queen Elizabeth prompted a viral spread of claims falsely attributing her death to the COVID-19 vaccines along with a flood of posts from QAnon supporters connecting her to purported sex trafficking. 

Viral attacks on the royals cannot always be connected to organized disinformation networks. In 2021, Christopher Bouzy of Bot Sentinel released a report tying 70% of negative commentary about Meghan Markle on Twitter to only 83 users, all of which were single-topic accounts focusing on anti-Sussex comments. After Meghan and Prince Harry left their roles as senior royals in early 2020, they cited the negative environment on social media as a motivation for their decision. In 2021, Harry joined Aspen’s Institute Commission on Information Disorder as a part of his campaign to address online misinformation and disinformation. 

After the commission concluded, the prince shared some of his knowledge in a conversation with Wired editor at large Steven Levy, where he also cited the results of the Bot Sentinel report. “Just like a virus, there are superspreaders to monitor and contain,” he said. “We know that a small number of accounts are allowed to create a huge amount of chaos online and destruction without any consequences at all.”


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