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The British royal family learns that if you don鈥檛 fill an information vacuum, someone else will

Catherine, Princess of Wales reveals she is being treated for cancer in video message

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NEW YORK (AP) 鈥 A media frenzy was born on Feb. 27, when the hashtag #WhereIsKate exploded online with speculation about the whereabouts of Britain鈥檚 Princess of Wales. It opened a rabbit hole of amateur detective work, memes, bizarre theories and jokes 鈥 mixed with genuine concern about Kate鈥檚 health 鈥 into which thousands of people descended until her announcement last week that she was recovering from cancer.

The episode offered the royal family 鈥 and everyone else 鈥 a lesson in the modern world of online media: If your silence leaves an information vacuum, others will rush to fill it. And the results may be messy.

鈥淭he royal family鈥檚 mantra is never complain, never explain,鈥 said Ellie Hall, a journalist who specializes in covering Britain鈥檚 king and his court. 鈥淭hat really doesn鈥檛 work in a digital age. It doesn鈥檛 take much to get the crazy things going.鈥

It was, in part, entertainment for some people with too much time on their hands. Except it involved real people with real lives 鈥 and, it turns out, real medical challenges.

ANATOMY OF AN INFORMATION VACUUM

On Jan. 17, Kensington Palace announced that Kate was in the hospital and would not be doing any public events until after Easter. There was relatively little online chatter, or official updates, until it was announced on Feb. 27 that her husband, Prince William, would not be attending his godfather鈥檚 memorial service due to a 鈥減ersonal matter.鈥

That鈥檚 when the theorizing really began, noted Ryan Broderick, who writes the Garbage Day newsletter about the online environment.

Where was Kate? Was she seriously ill 鈥 in a coma, perhaps? Did she travel abroad to undergo plastic surgery? Had she been replaced by a body double? Was there trouble in her marriage? Did she leave William? Had she been abused? Unsubstantiated rumors made it all the way to American talk show host Stephen Colbert. Memes appeared that included putting Kate鈥檚 picture on the face of an actress in a 2014 film about a missing wife.

After two decades in which people have uploaded their lives to a system of platforms run by algorithms that make money off our worst impulses, 鈥渨e have wondered what the world might look like when we crossed the threshold into a fully online world,鈥 Broderick wrote on Garbage Day. 鈥淲ell, we did. We crossed it.鈥

鈥淐onspiracy is the Internet鈥檚 favorite sport,鈥 Sarah Frier, author of 鈥淣o Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram,鈥 posted on X, formerly Twitter. 鈥淚t starts here and becomes mainstream. At one point last week, MOST of the content on my (X) feed was about her. None of it was right. This is just what people do for fun and followers now.鈥

Then came the grand, unforced error 鈥 the palace releasing a photo on March 10 of Kate and her children that it later admitted had been digitally manipulated, without leaving clear exactly what was done.

Even before that, a ham-fisted public relations strategy by the royal family鈥檚 handlers had lost control of the narrative, said Peter Mancusi, a journalism professor at Northeastern University and a lawyer with his own business in crisis counseling.

Providing some proof of life, some morsels of information 鈥 even a staged shot of Kate waving from a balcony 鈥 would have filled the vacuum, he said. Mancusi contrasted the strategy with that surrounding King Charles, where it was quickly announced around the same time that he was fighting cancer. It has never been made clear exactly what kind of cancer the king has, but people are inclined to grant some degree of privacy with that diagnosis, Mancusi said.

Mancusi frequently deals with clients who resist releasing damaging or uncomfortable information that usually winds up getting out anyway. Best to be pro-active or, as Hall said, 鈥渇eed the beast.鈥

鈥淚t鈥檚 just human nature, and it鈥檚 the nature of a lot of companies when bad news hits, to go into a defensive crouch,鈥 Mancusi said. 鈥淏ut hope isn鈥檛 a strategy anymore.鈥

CLEAR AND VERIFIABLE INFORMATION CAN HELP MATTERS

Despite the temptation to ignore rumors and conspiracy theories, it鈥檚 best to respond quickly with clear and verifiable information, said Daniel Allington, a social scientist at King鈥檚 College in London who studies disinformation. 鈥淥nce people start speculating that you are lying to them,鈥 Allington said, 鈥渋t鈥檚 very hard to get them back on board.鈥

In an article published on vulture.com 12 days before Kate announced she had cancer, author Kathryn VanArendonk that truth in a discussion about how the monarchy is not built for the modern information era.

鈥淐atherine may be going through some private experiences she does not want to share widely,鈥 she wrote, 鈥渁nd the internet has broken everyone鈥檚 ability to assess what鈥檚 a supervillain-level coverup and what鈥檚 more likely to be something sad and mundane.鈥

Cancer is something too many people can relate to. They understand how hard it is to speak those words to loved ones, much less the entire world. Kate鈥檚 video was a candid, emotional and effective way of sharing very personal information, said Matthew Hitzik, a veteran in crisis communications from New York.

It didn鈥檛 end wild online speculation, though. Almost immediately, suggestions popped up that the speech was generated by artificial intelligence or, in an unholy alliance of conspiracy theories, that her cancer was caused by the COVID-19 vaccine.

But that was nonsense, and felt churlish. A corner had been turned. The Sun in London now runs daily stories with 鈥淏rave Kate鈥 in the headline. Trolls 鈥渟hould hang their heads in shame,鈥 the newspaper editorialized. The Atlantic magazine : 鈥淚 Hope You All Feel Terrible Now.鈥

What shouldn鈥檛 be lost, however, is how preventable it all was.

鈥淵ou cannot blame British newspapers for the miseries heaped on the Prince and Princess of Wales,鈥 columnist Hugo Rifkind wrote in The Times of London. 鈥淐ertainly we didn鈥檛 help, if only because a princess releasing doctored photographs to the public, for reasons at that point unclear, is an objectively grabby and fascinating story. But the conspiracy theories? The juggernauts of dirty speculation? You could argue, I suppose, that papers should have simply pretended none of this was happening.

鈥淏ut it was, and it wasn鈥檛 driven by us,鈥 he wrote. 鈥淚t was driven by you.鈥

#WhereIsKate? Now we know.

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Associated Press correspondents Sylvia Hui and Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report. David Bauder writes about media for 老澳门六合彩. Follow him at

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