Heritage

How the Internet's Obsession with the Royal Family Turned Toxic

Royal correspondent Victoria Murphy on how the internet and social media have changed everything for the family and the people who follow them.
IMAGE GETTY IMAGES / SAMIR HUSSEIN
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Almost five years ago, I was covering a visit by Prince Harry to a school in east London, an event to highlight students who were being trained as 'digital media champions' to promote the inaugural Invictus Games.

Entering the classrooms at Bethnal Green Academy, Harry joined pupils learning how to best tweet and use Facebook to spread the word about the upcoming event. Afterward, the prince became involved in an impromptu assembly interview, during which he pronounced: "The issue for myself and my family, put quite simply, is that it's very hard for me to tweet about the Invictus Games and tweet about something that means a lot to me, whereas I at the same time really quite hate Twitter by the invasion of privacy."

So herein lies the conundrum faced by royals—and indeed everyone—in the modern age: how to make the most of the opportunities on the internet without being dragged down by the pitfalls.

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Informed by the Queen’s understanding that the monarchy must modernize in order to remain relevant, the royal family has embraced social media, with Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook profiles that encourage a direct, unfiltered line to the public worldwide to share their work and promote charitable endeavors.

That said, the expansion of the internet has also led to interest in the royals being fed
at a pace and in a way, which has created a whole host of new problems.

With last year’s royal wedding generating feverish levels of excitement and the marriage leading to another hugely high profile royal couple on the world stage, we are now surrounded by an unprecedented explosion of coverage.


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Meghan and Harry on their wedding day in May 2018

Discussion of some of the issues faced by the royals on social media came to a head recently when campaign #hellotokindness was launched by HELLO! Magazine in response to the increasing number of insults aimed at Kate, Meghan, and their fans. It emerged that palace staff spends hours moderating abusive comments across their official channels, posts which include sexist and racist insults that have sometimes escalated into violent threats.

As someone who has been tweeting about the royals for a long time I, too, have noticed an increasingly hostile tone on the platform, with fans frequently arguing across my feed. Bizarre theories being peddled, such as Meghan faking her pregnancy, is just one way in which Twitter enables the spread of toxic commentary that has no bearing on reality.

Of course, the fact that suggestions there were tensions between the Cambridges and Sussexes so quickly became a story about two women feuding has far more to do with society than the internet. But the sheer volume of coverage the web allows for, and the speed with which it can be prolifically shared and commented on, has undoubtedly contributed to the frenzy surrounding the conversation.

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Racist comments about Meghan highlight how the internet can promote the amplification of society’s ugliest side while letting people spread hate and prejudice anonymously. Kensington Palace raised concerns over racist social media trolls as far back as November 2016, when the couple was dating. An unprecedented statement issued by the communications secretary to Prince Harry also called out the "racial undertones" of some comment pieces.

The multitude of stories about the Duchess of Sussex have been widely and hotly debated, with many referencing whether the "British media" has "turned on her" or is "out to get her."

Yet the impossibly vague terms "media" and "British media" belie the many layers of the current ecosystem, which has become infinitely more complex in the internet age.

There are hundreds of media outlets in the U.K.—in print, broadcast, and online—that are behaving in completely different ways when it comes to royal reporting.

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Some are reverential to the royal family, others take a more cynical view of this publicly funded institution. Some provide a platform for virtually every bit of gossip while others are much more discerning about what they publish.

There are even individuals within the same media organization commentating and reporting very differently, as well as websites producing very different content from their print counterparts.


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The Duchess of Sussex at the 2018 Trooping the Colour parade. Her off-the-shoulder look promoted a number of articles questioning whether the outfit broke royal protocol. In short, it didn’t.

Endless space on websites means that information that did not make the cut in a newspaper, magazine story, or news bulletin, and in some cases would not make it past a fact checker—including, for example, many stories about fictional royal "protocol"—are now frequently given a platform of their own.

Of course, the internet is not the only source of questionable information. There have been several print stories that Kensington Palace aides, who so often say nothing, have been moved to deny. However, in the internet age, even an on-the-record denial can sometimes have little impact in shutting down a story down once it has been repeated like wildfire across multiple outlets. The permanent nature of the web—where stories do not become tomorrow’s recycling—means that the volume of coverage on a subject can only increase, persistently magnifying any narrative that may have once come and gone.

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In a world where there is now so much noise, not all stories and sources deserve to be treated equally, yet it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between what is reliable and what is not.

It is worth pointing out here that it is not the job of credible journalists to report only what palace officials want them to or what royal fans want to hear. The royal family, for their part, have always understood this. For all his frustration with sections of the media over the years, as a future king, William believes in and supports a free press. Friction sometimes occurs, and the palace hates it when things are inaccurate, but they do not expect never to be challenged by the fourth estate.

Indeed, there are times when journalists and publications work with the royals to help them navigate the balance between their public and private lives—such as the successful media blackout that took place when William went to St Andrews University.

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And the question of protecting their privacy when off-duty is a pressing issue for the royals in the internet age. When the brothers were growing up, they had to think about photographers, who followed their mother, Princess Diana, everywhere, and then later, when they were young adults, often captured images of them coming out of nightclubs.

However, for the next generation of royal children, smartphones inside the club will present a far bigger problem. The media blackout when William was studying will be a lot more challenging in an era where anyone can take and publish a photograph. Can a university successfully ask every student, member of staff, and visitor never to take an image of Prince George? Can the palace monitor every social media platform and ask them to remove such an image if it appears?

To date, the palace has been fairly successful at keeping this phenomenon at bay with the young royal children. Very few images of George, Charlotte, and Louis currently make their way onto social media despite the fact they are regularly out and about in public spaces. Perhaps that’s a hopeful sign, and an indication of the public’s will for them to have as normal a childhood as possible, even in the digital age.

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But despite the ugliness on social media and the way in which the internet has challenged them in recent years, don’t expect the royals to head offline. The official Kensington Palace Twitter account has 1.6 million followers and their Instagram account has 7.1 million. For many people, it is their only source of royal news.

And it’s undeniable that the young royals have a talent for creating their own social media content. Remember the infamous mic drop comedy sketch video Prince Harry created with the Queen in a challenge to the Obamas? It instantly went viral.


If anything, these platforms are likely to mean the younger royals spend more time, not less, talking about how ugly the internet can be. When it comes to the activity across their own accounts, they are far more concerned about the welfare of feuding fans than their own feelings.

Indeed, Prince William’s deep concern about cyberbullying led him to launch a task force on the issue. He gave one of his most hard-hitting and critical speeches when the project came to a close, saying about tech leaders: "Their self-image is so grounded in their positive power for good that they seem unable to engage in constructive discussion about the social problems they are creating."

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As the task force showed, there is a lot of work to do when it comes to navigating the multitude of issues the internet presents. However, with their unique profiles and reach, as well as their own experiences to draw from, the royals may well find themselves at the center of one of the biggest debates of our time: how to make the internet and social media a better and safer place for everyone.

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Victoria Murphy
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