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What #KateGate can Teach us about False Information

By Kavisha Pillay

When thinking about my monthly editorial for the Campaign On Digital Ethics (CODE), I was intending to write about the need for progressive human rights frameworks when developing algorithms and artificial intelligence. This is, after all, the core business of CODE and it felt apt to reflect on this during Human Rights Month in South Africa. But then, #KateGate happened, and now my original article - which is still important - feels a bit turgid in the slurry of online conspiracies, memes, and royal sycophantry of the current moment. 

To start off, for the many among us who don’t have the time, emotional energy or are just simply uninterested in the whereabouts of a royal princess, Kate Middleton, the princess of Wales, has been absent from the public eye for most of the year. According to a statement by Kensington Palace, she underwent abdominal surgery and would not be able to engage in public duties until the end of March. This seems normal - woman undergoes major surgery, and needs to rest and recover. 

But if you are a member of the British Royal Family, this is anything but normal - given that your affairs, sibling squabbles, and sexcapades are often splashed across the tabloids, feeding a frenzy of public spectacle. 

For a few weeks, internet sleuths were trying to find the whereabouts of Kate Middleton, who was obviously absent from the public eye due to her surgery. While engaging in my daily feed-scrolling (continuously moving through content on social media looking for entertainment, information, and dopamine hits), I was being led down various #WhereIsKate rabbit holes with some alleging that the princess got a Brazilian butt lift and needed to recover! Others claimed that her husband was having an affair and so Kate was refusing to engage in public life.

Conspiracy theories peaked on Mothers Day in the UK, when an image of the Princess and her children was released which seems to have been digitally manipulated. This resulted in the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, Getty, and Reuters recalling the image from circulation. 

Social media streets were awash with fascinating plots made for Netflix all in an attempt to find Kate., Some alincluding that Prince William had killed Kate and as a result King Charles was looking for a new heir, or that Queen Camilla was masterminding a coup to take over the Crown. Even notorious figures like Kim Kardashian, who is the poster child of digitally enhanced and manipulated pictures, jumped on the bandwagon to try and find Kate. 

It turns out that Kate has been battling cancer. 

Now that’s a plot twist that we didn’t see coming.

This whole saga will probably be taught in public relations seminars in the years to come about how not to handle crisis communications. 

However, for those of us who are concerned about disinformation, and how it thrives in our current times, #KateGate also presents a teachable moment to the public about the different types of false information that exists, how it plays on our biases, how our interaction with this content feeds into bigger issues of polarisation that we see online, and how social media algorithms are designed to exacerbate fake news. 

In that light, it is important for us as users of digital platforms and social media to understand what false information is, and how it becomes pervasive in online spaces. 

Understanding false information 

False information, as the term suggests, refers to content which contains lies, falsehoods or inaccurate / misleading information. False information can be further categorised into the following: 

  • Disinformation - content that was created to be intentionally false and cause harm. 

  • Misinformation - false, incorrect and misleading information that is shared, but the person sharing it is not aware that they are sharing incorrect information. 

Disinformation can be divided into subtypes, which include: 

Satire / parody 

In this case, comedians and commentators will present humorous but false stories, as if they were true. The intention is not to cause harm, but the content may be misunderstood. 

Take for example a skit on The Daily Show where comedian Grace Khulenshmidt noted that the Palace released a new photo, post the Mother’s Day debacle, where the picture of Kate and her kids was digitally manipulated and placed in front of the Twin Towers in New York.   

False context / connection 

This type of false information refers to factually accurate content that is shared with false contextual information. Since Kate’s revelation of cancer, new conspiracies have emerged implying that the princess got cancer because she took the Covid-19 vaccine. Presently, there is no scientific, peer-reviewed evidence which suggests that there is a link between the Covid vaccines and the emergence of cancer. But hey, why believe scientists when TikTok influencers and podcasters know better? 

Take for example The Counter Signal, a far right media site laden with conspiracy theories. It published an article referring to an actual scientific study (though they fail to mention that it has not been peer-reviewed) which does suggest that from 2021, there may have been a new phenomenon causing an increase in deaths from cancer or cancer-related illnesses, among individuals aged 15 to 44 in the United States. 

However, the study notes that ongoing investigations are needed to better understand these trends, such as analysing data by age and type of cancer. These analyses would aim to explore the potential relationship of the observed trends with pandemic-related factors, including changes in access to or use of cancer screening and treatment, alterations in health-related behaviours (like exercise or smoking habits), and exposure to Covid-19 or its vaccines. 

However the study, contrary to what is inferred by The Counter Signal, does not claim that the increase in cancer-related deaths is a result of the Covid-19 vaccine. 

Manipulated content 

Manipulated content refers to genuine information or imagery that has been distorted. 

The image, which resulted in an avalanche of conspiracy theories, was released by Kensington Palace on Mothers Day in the UK, and seems to have been manipulated. Digital investigators and photography experts quickly picked up that the picture contained  blurred hands, patterns on sweaters that did not align, and zips which did not match up. The princess later admitted that she had edited the photo, and apologised for causing public confusion. 

Fabricated content 

This type of false information refers to completely false content. For example, celebrity gossip site TMZ released a video of William, allegedly with Kate, at a farmer’s market. Amid the frenzy about Kate’s whereabouts, both TMZ and The Sun reported that the princess looked happy and healthy. The video is short and it does show William walking with a brunette woman of a similar height and stature to Kate, but it is quite clear that that person in the video was not in fact Kate Middleton.

Another example of fabricated content includes a post from one Dr William Makis, who according to his X profile (formerly Twitter) is a radiologist, oncologist, and cancer researcher. He has over 160 000 followers. He links Kate’s cancer diagnosis with what he terms “Turbo Cancers”. As I have already pointed out, there is no scientific evidence linking the Covid-19 vaccine with cancer. Neither is there a cancer called Turbo Cancer!

Turning #KateGate into digital wisdom 

This saga provides interesting insights into how we, as users of social media, consume information; how social media algorithms contribute towards the viral spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories; and how during an era of filters and various photo editing apps, we contribute towards vast streams of manipulated content circulating online. 

So, here are some tips on how to navigate social media during the many #KateGate sagas that will continue to arise during our time:  

  1. Critical thinking and evaluation is key - approach information and content with a critical mind. Question the source of information and credibility, before just merely accepting it as truth. It is important, however, to not become completely distrusting and assume that all content is manipulated, or generated by artificial intelligence - as many are now alleging with Kate’s latest video where she communicated that she has cancer. 

  2. Fact check - Use reputable fact-checking websites to verify the authenticity of controversial claims. In an era rife with false information, a little scepticism goes a long way. Frequently visit sites like Africa Check, Snopes and others, to get the latest fact checks. 

  3. Understand the role of algorithms - Recognise that social media platforms use algorithms designed to keep you engaged by showing you more of what you interact with. This can create echo chambers that reinforce your existing beliefs. Be deliberate in seeking out diverse perspectives.

  4. Be cautious with shares and likes: Remember, every share, like, or comment you make contributes to the virality of content. Think twice before contributing to the spread of potentially false or misleading information.

  5. Report suspicious content: When you come across misinformation, report it. Social media platforms rely on user feedback to help identify and take action against the spread of false information.

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