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What’s fueling all the Kate Middleton speculation and conspiracy theories?

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Chris Jackson/Getty Images

What’s happening

Officially, the mystery of Kate Middleton’s whereabouts over the past few months is no mystery at all. According to the monarchy, the princess has chosen to stay out of the public eye while she recovers from a planned abdominal surgery In mid-January.

But that story hasn’t been nearly enough to satisfy the public at large. In recent weeks, online spaces and mainstream news sources have been flooded with endless speculation, jokey memes and wild conspiracy theories, all aimed at answering the question “Where is Kate?”

Outside of a few sparse updates from the royals, there was extremely limited information on Kate’s condition for several weeks after she had surgery for an as-yet-unknown reason. Conjecture about what was “really” going was cranked up even more after the Prince and Princess of Wales shared a family photo that was subsequently pulled from the photo libraries of several major news organizations due to evidence that it had been altered.

At the moment, social media is still overflowing with posts scrutinizing the few recent images of the princess with ​​Zapruder film-like detail and chronicling elaborate theories and alternate explanations for Kate’s public absence — including radical plastic surgery, infidelity, an undisclosed coma, the use of body doubles and a even secretly dead king.

Why there’s debate

By the standards of British royal family scandals, a princess taking time in private to focus on her health is hardly salacious. But media experts and cultural critics say it’s no surprise that the situation has become such a firestorm.

Many blame the royals themselves for being so closed off about a matter of serious public interest that people couldn’t help but fill that information vacuum with their own explanations. They add that the fumbling response to rumors, as typified by the botched photo release, only added to the belief that the monarchy can’t be trusted.

Other commentators make the case that “Kate-gate” also serves as an example of how our relationship with celebrity has been warped in the social media age. They argue that we’ve become accustomed to being invited to witness the most intimate moments of stars’ lives, and the public now sees anything less than full disclosure as a violation of its right to know everything all of the time. Some suggest that conspiracy theories and distrust in the media are so rampant at this point that almost every news story gets run through the same cycle of scrutiny and speculation.

What’s next

Kate is reportedly planning to resume her public duties sometime around or after Easter Sunday, though there has been no official update on when or where that might happen. It’s also unclear whether she or the monarchy will ever provide a more thorough explanation for her extended absence once she returns to her regular schedule.

Perspectives

There’s still some special magic to the fantasy of the monarchy

“Like all fairy tales and fables, monarchy infantilizes us, and like a drug, it eats into real life, starting with the lives of the royals themselves.” — Tanya Gold, The Cut

None of this would be happening if the monarchy was willing to be open about what’s happening

“At this stage, privacy does not work. It breeds rumour, gossip and fabrication. When fake news and fake pictures are rampant, secrecy is the enemy of truth. Just say what the matter is. It is more likely to generate respect.” — Simon Jenkins, Guardian

Recent history has provided plenty of reasons to doubt the monarchy’s official story

“I think a big part of this drama is that over the past few years, people have started to really distrust not just the royal family (as an institution/bureaucracy, not necessarily the individual members) but the reporters and outlets that cover the royal family.” — Ellie Hall, former royals reporter for Buzzfeed News, to Nieman Lab

The truth is boring, so we feel the need to imagine a more interesting reality

“Where actually was Kate? Clearly, living at home, away from the cameras and recovering from her abdominal surgery. She did precisely what any other person would do in her situation. Right at the start, she had announced an end date to this convalescence (Easter, presumably on advice of her doctors), and that was all she needed to do.” — Editorial, Chicago Tribune

Kate broke the unspoken pact that celebrities need to share everything all of the time

“I am certainly not above a bit of good-natured speculation in my group chats. (Who among us is?) But there’s a difference between some rude private discussions among friends and tremendous public pressure to talk about something that truly isn’t anyone’s business but Kate’s.” — Jessica Grose, New York Times

The public really does deserve to know what’s happening

“People are asking questions. When did curiosity — and even justified suspicion — become the realm solely of conspiracy theorists? The world has been presented with an incongruous account of a public figure’s almost total disappearance. … So yeah, we have questions.” — Jackie Jennings, Jezebel

Our relationship with the truth is so broken, this is what happens to every news story

“The Middleton story is a collision of two popular cultures: conspiracy theorizing, now fully mainstream, and classic celebrity gossip. It makes for a weird scene. … The humor, memes, reckless speculation, paranoia, and layers of meta-commentary have become the lingua franca of the internet and, by extension, popular culture, where innocent-enough memes and conspiracies blend until the distinction feels almost irrelevant. This is how we talk about celebrities now.” — Charlie Warzel, The Atlantic

We’ve all been trained to doubt everything we see

“We’re already developing a reflex to question any photo or video we see online, because we have to. But that means it’s not only easier in the age of AI to create fake images (which it is); it’s easier also to claim images are fake even when they’re not.” — Molly Roberts, Washington Post

More than anything, Kate-gate is a fun distraction

“So much of the random theorizing is just people killing time being bonkers; at this point, the rabbit hole has a life of its own.” — Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Chris Jackson/Getty Images