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'A lesson to us all': how Katespiracy sounded a powerful warning siren about dangerous online rumours

 (AP)
(AP)

So, there we have it: an answer that finally puts an end to the cruel internet frenzy that became known as Katespiracy. And a tragic one: Kate, the Princess of Wales, has not been abducted by aliens, selected to appear on The Masked Singer or whatever other outlandish, baseless or distasteful rumours various conspiracy theorists wanted us to believe over the two months since her last public appearance. She has cancer. She was diagnosed with it in February after her abdominal surgery, and is currently in the early stages of preventative chemotherapy.

“This of course came as a huge shock, and William and I have been doing everything we can to process and manage this privately for the sake of our young family,” the future queen, 42, explained in a short personal message filmed in the gardens of Windsor Castle, released last night.

Dressed down on a park bench in a jumper and jeans, Kate shared several truths in the two-minute video: that her condition was discovered after she had major abdominal surgery in January; that she felt well and was “getting stronger every day”; and that she had kept it a secret until now for the sake of her children, George, 10, Charlotte, eight, and Louis, five. "It has taken us time to explain everything to George, Charlotte and Louis in a way that is appropriate for them, and to reassure them that I am going to be ok,” she said in a brave and dignified speech that seemed almost deliberately unedited, pointedly raw.

And just like that, the speculation stopped; any rumours, falsehoods or US talk show gags finally extinguished and put to bed; a more sobering collective mood moving in in their place. There are likely to be many feeling more than a pang of guilt as they look back at their conversations and social media activity over the last few weeks, knowing what they do now: that the royal family’s silence on Kate’s whereabouts was not a hoax or an abduction or a case of plastic surgery gone wrong, but just a scared, anxious mother-of-three trying to recover from the shock of a cancer diagnosis and doing her best to protect her young family in the meantime.

We don’t yet know the full details of the princess’ diagnosis, but the last 24 hours certainly mark a watershed moment for the royal family and its long abided-by ‘never complain, never explain’ motto. Shame and regret are two of the words doing the rounds this morning, as the world stops and tries to take stock.

Kate’s father-in-law King Charles, currently undergoing his own chemotherapy treatment after a diagnosis in February, praised the princess’ courageousness for “speaking as she did.". The Bidens and Ivanka Trump wished her a full recovery. Even Kate’s brother-and-sister-in-law Harry and Meghan issued a public statement wishing her health and healing, despite reports of an ongoing sibling feud.

 (AP)
(AP)

The thousands of public messages of support have been moving, too, but perhaps even more striking have been the apologies. “That post has me mortified today,” was the message from actress Blake Lively, one of the more high-profile figures to weigh into Katespiracy at the time, with an “silly post” about the Photoshop frenzy. “I’m ashamed,” was the admission of left-wing commentator Owen Jones, who admits to having speculated on the princess’ whereabouts without considering it could be a serious health condition.

Several other commentators and conspiracy theorists have been quick to swallow their pride and take back their previous comments. Some of those who accused the Wales family’s Photoshop blunder of being badly managed by their press teams say they wish they could take back their comments now. If only it was simply a case of bad PR. Others have remained silent, undoubtedly wrangling with whether to say something or simply – as one commentator put it – crawl back to their gossip swamps.

Kim Kardashian is among the high-profile figures to remain noticeably quiet since jumping aboard the Katespiracy bandwagon. Endgame author Omid Scobie – a public cheerleader of Harry and Meghan – has so far deleted a “tasteless” tweet he posted last night, counting down to the bombshell royal announcement, and posted a follow-up tweet explaining the decision. He did not apologise for posting the tweet, however, and has not yet specifically commented on Kate’s cancer update.

 (Instagram)
(Instagram)

In many ways, the news rewrites the story of the past few weeks as the reality of what the family’s silence actually meant begins to hit: that Prince William’s absence from the memorial service of his godfather Constantine II of Greece was likely because he was supporting his wife. That the couple’s tapping out of royal duties over the Easter weekend is for health reasons, not political ones or otherwise. That the family’s most widely-speculated-about updates of recent months – that edited Mother’s Day photo and the video of Kate and Will visiting a farm shop – came amid her chemotherapy treatment, a process her father-in-law King Charles is also undergoing and one that many will have their own first-hand experience of, if they’ve been unfortunate enough to fall within the 50 per cent who find themselves diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. You can almost hear the creaks as the trolls retreat into their shells.

Many say it is sad that Kate felt she had to do this; to come out and deliver the news so publicly, so vulnerably, in order to draw a line in the sand once and for all. But at the same time perhaps it is unsurprising.

Whether it was theories of death, divorce or body doubles, the Katespiracies that ripped through the internet proved that no subject or person is off-limits in the digital quest for the truth. But it also showed us that perhaps limits are necessary, sometimes. Should even royals have a right to privacy in certain circumstances? Is a future monarch entitled to sick leave? Will Kate’s cancer reveal mark a turning point in the way public figures and their health are spoken about online?

Kate, the Princess of Wales with her three children celebrating Mother's Day (Kensington Palace)
Kate, the Princess of Wales with her three children celebrating Mother's Day (Kensington Palace)

It depends who you ask. “Now give the woman a break” is, naturally, a common feeling doing the rounds in the 24 hours since the news. “Thank you Kate for raising public awareness,” is another. But the role of the Firm is almost by definition a public-facing one and polls show that Kate has long been the most popular member of all of them, a symbol of health, elegance and family values. Was the internet’s reaction actually so surprising, really?

Perhaps lessons have been learnt on both sides. The publicity teams surrounding our future king and queen will certainly have been reminded of quite how delicate a balancing act royal updates and announcements can be in a digital age. Even at a time in which AI-generation and photo editing tools are rife, great care must be taken. Mistakes must be avoided.

But Kate’s unflinching cancer reveal serves as a wider and urgent reminder that even a future queen has a right to privacy when it comes to her health. “It’s taught me a big lesson not to jump to conclusions,” was a common sentiment on X last night. “Don’t wander into wild and ridiculous conspiracy theories. Live each and every day to the fullest. Be kind,” was another.

One tweet, by the author Annika H Rothstein, spoke to the gendered nature of internet trolling that many believe the whole Katespiracy debate highlighted, after the recent trollings of female figures such as Britney Spears and Amber Heard. ”It should serve as a lesson to all of us about the reality of being a woman on the internet, the complete lack of empathy and understanding in this space we all inhabit,” Rothstein wrote in a post that has been liked more than 1,400 times. “I feel for her and her family, and I feel guilty as f*** for caring more about memes and conspiracy theories than I did the reason behind her desperate need for privacy.”

Kate’s own message, in the end, was a hopeful one, focused on the future and togetherness. "For everyone facing this disease, in whatever form, please do not lose faith or hope," she said, daffodils in the background, choosing to focus her speech on the thousands of other cancer sufferers and their families grappling with the confusion, fear and anxiety that she and her family will have done in recent weeks. "You are not alone."

Indeed hers might be a unique position, in many ways, but it is also a shared one. Cancer is nothing if not a leveller and while the royals might be born onto a strange sort of public pedestal, in many ways, but they are also humans with feelings and loved ones and cancer crises, just like the rest of us.

Hopefully as Kate and her family focus on her recovery now, the reciprocal messages of support, love and hope will be a reminder of that togetherness for them too.