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Kate Middleton Conspiracists Are Recreating the Streisand Effect

Group chats, including at least one of mine, can’t get enough. #KateGate—loosely, a collection of theories around the whereabouts and well-being of Kate Middleton, the Princess of Wales—presently seems to be occupying more brain cells than oxygen.

Gossip has been flying ever since January, when Middleton took a step back from public life for abdominal surgery. For a while it was just mindless chatter, but then Middleton posted a photo on social media, purportedly taken by her husband, Prince William, that news agencies determined had been manipulated. Then, speculation—that she’d Gone Girl’d, that the royal family was hiding something—turned fully conspiratorial, and turned the conspiracies into a cultural moment. (See also: crossover memes showing Middleton at the weird Willy Wonka experience in Glasgow.)

It is as though, two decades later, the British royal family is just now learning about the Streisand effect. Back in 2003, Barbara Streisand sued a photographer for releasing a picture of her home that few people had seen. But the suit itself, which Streisand ultimately lost, led far more people to the photo than probably would have otherwise seen it, and now there’s a whole effect named after this incident. The royals released an altered photo and now it’s part of a “-gate”: #KateGate. By trying to relay that everything is fine, the photo lured even more people into questioning what was happening with Middleton.

Bottom line: If you’re, say, a member of the monarchy, and you don’t want them thinking your “abdominal surgery” is code for getting a Brazilian butt lift, your best bet, in 2024, is transparency. Anyone with an internet connection now has the kind of bullshit detectors that Area 51 believers could’ve only dreamed of—or they act like they do—and they’re going to figure you out.

Granted, they may not find the “right” answer or the “truth,” but they will know when someone is trying to pull a fast one. Thirty years ago, Buckingham Palace may have been able to throw snoopers off, but the internet of 2024 will investigate like no other. We got Taylor Swift conspiracies and QAnon. People wonder if most images are AI-generated for at least a second. Going onto X (formerly Twitter) now feels like stumbling into the writers room of a CSI spinoff—everyone thinks they’re a forensics expert. If anybody, including Middleton, thought no one would notice a doctored photo on Instagram, they were sorely mistaken.

On Monday, TMZ and The Sun released a video showing the Princess of Wales out shopping with Prince William. She was seemingly alive and well. The Sun said it was releasing images of their stroll “in a bid to bring an end to what the Palace has called the ‘madness of social media.’” It did nothing of the sort. Interest in Middleton peaked the next day on Google Trends. #katemiddleton and #whereiskate now have millions of mentions across social media platforms. The madness has not calmed.

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People pay attention to the British royal family for the same reason they pay attention to Game of Thrones or House of the Dragon: They love mess. Monday’s grainy footage just made the mess worse. TikTok is full of breakdown videos attempting to debunk the images. Others just wondered aloud if they’d been fully sucked in.

“This was fun for a while, and now I am genuinely at a loss,” one TikTok user posted. “I don’t know if this is how you feel when you actually lose the plot in a conspiracy theory and like five years from now everyone’s like, ‘That’s the moment when we lost them,’ or if we’re like actually watching an insane cover-up take place.”

Following the release of the shopping video and images, “friends of the royals” told The Daily Beast that Middleton would resume her public duties with a “big bang” on March 31, Easter Sunday. On Wednesday, The Cut, which previously wrote that the Middleton affair was a “crisis,” reported that Buckingham Palace was looking for a communications assistant. (Mind you, this is Buckingham, not Kensington, but same operation.) Queen Elizabeth II used to say the royal family must be seen to be believed. That may not be true much longer.

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