The Kate Middleton Situation Was a Sideshow. Now It’s Changed the Royals Forever.

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It’s been just over a week since Kate Middleton, the internet’s favorite “missing person,” claimed that a photoshopped image of her with her children on U.K. Mother’s Day was edited by her, for unspecified reasons. Then, on Monday, we had our first recorded sighting of the princess, out shopping with Prince William at the Royal Farms Windsor Farm Shop, near Windsor Castle. The video was released by TMZ and the Sun, and stills from it were plastered on the front pages of all the British tabloids Tuesday. Supposedly, it was taken by a 40-year-old man, Nelson Silva, who lives nearby and was quoted in TMZ as saying: “Kate looked happy and relaxed. They look happy just to be able to go to a shop and mingle. Kate looked relieved, like it was a success going to a shop. It felt natural.”

Great! End of story. There she is: not dead, not apparently dying, not a surprise contestant on The Masked Singer, not any of it. This should put all the conspiracy theories to bed now, right?

Of course not. Immediately, the online masses jumped on the video. Claiming that the footage was too grainy to see whether it was actually Kate Middleton. Saying that the bags she was carrying would have been too heavy for someone who recently had abdominal surgery. Comparing the heights of Kate’s and William’s eyelines in this footage with others and suggesting that this Kate was too tall to be the real Kate. Saying that the heart-shaped decorations visible behind the couple on some wooden huts outside the shop were Christmas-themed, and that the video was therefore old. I even saw someone arguing that the woman in the video looks more like Rose Hanbury, otherwise known as (content warning: nuclear Britishness) the Marchioness of Cholmondeley, whom William is rumored, without evidence, to be having an affair with.

The whole sighting was at least somewhat staged, I’m certain. On Tuesday, I rang the farm shop myself. As soon as I got out the words “I’m a reporter for,” the woman on the line interrupted me in a tone that suggested I was very much not the first reporter to call her today, and said, “I’m sorry, you’ll need to contact our head office, which is Buckingham Palace.” So, the shop answers to the palace, and it was no doubt informed that Kate and William would be dropping by and briefed not to talk to press. The palace may even have tipped someone off to take a candid video of them. Nobody so far has come forward to confirm that they also saw Kate at this public shop, and no other pictures or footage have emerged, but that’s not to say that these people don’t exist. And none of this is out of the ordinary for royal comms. It’s Kate in the video. A reporter for Good Morning Britain, one of our big morning talk shows, went down there this morning and confirmed that the so-called Christmas decorations visible on the huts behind Kate in the video are indeed still there. What are we doing? How have we arrived at the point that senior journalists are poking around in grocery stores outside Windsor to check on the status of heart-shaped wreaths? How has it got to this point?

The thing is, it doesn’t matter that it’s her in the video. There’s nothing the palace can do now. They could tour Kate ’round the homes of everybody in Britain, and the U.S. besides, and people would be looking her dead in the eye, swearing she wasn’t there. It is too late.

There are several different things to blame for what’s gone on here. A boring one is an SEO-driven media cycle. Internet sleuths latched on to the Independent publishing an article about Hanbury right as the Mother’s Day photo debacle was kicking off. People claimed that this was some kind of orchestrated launch of their relationship, when in fact all that happened was that the Independent republishes the same get-to-know guide to Hanbury whenever she is tangentially in the public eye, in order to grab eyeballs and therefore more ad revenue online. Then here’s Page Six getting on the “Kate Middleton Spotted” click train yesterday, but because that publication doesn’t have the rights to the TMZ video, it published an article with misleading, old pictures of the princess. Standard practice, but since this whole mess has been fueled by misleading, old pictures of the princess, unfortunate.

We’re also living in an odd and highly specific era: the early days of the mass use of A.I.–generated images and deepfakes. At this moment, people are more suspicious of photos than they’ve ever been, but they also do not yet have a wide understanding about what A.I. can do. At the same time, we’re living in a period when people are still overly credulous about information they read online. All of which combines to mean that someone called Deborah who lives in Georgia or wherever can post a still from the farm shop video that she claims she has used “A.I.” on to sharpen the image, making Kate look like a completely different woman, and thousands of people will see, believe, and share it.

But obviously the chief culprit for creating this insane and needless manhunt is the palace itself. This has been truly catastrophic public relations. It used to be, before social media, that releasing a palace-approved “paparazzi shot” was enough for the royals to control the public narrative around them to a tolerable degree. And it used to be that the British newspapers would toe that line. Not so now. After the Mother’s Day photo incident, papers previously sycophantic toward the royals, like the Daily Mail, have been running pieces with headlines like “Crisis talks, a mea culpa and troubling unanswered questions: How Kate’s Mother’s Day photo became a PR nightmare —as sources insist Princess merely made ‘minor adjustments’ … so why won’t Palace reveal what they were?”

Now the trust is well and truly broken. The Mother’s Day disaster has led news organizations to look closer at past pictures officially released by the royal family, and lo and behold, some of those are dodgy as hell too. Getty said on Monday that this picture of the late queen with all her grandchildren is also, to some degree, faked. What the palace failed to reckon with when it announced that Kate was having a serious medical procedure and wouldn’t be seen for several months is that a vacuum of information that big—about a person to whom the public has grown used to feeling it has a right to access—is too big. And conspiracy theories always rush in to fill these kinds of vacuums. Kate wanted privacy about her medical procedure. If she were a normal person, that should have been easy to grant. But it’s not possible for the royals today. Silence breeds speculation, speculation leads to rumors, and rumors that go unquashed develop into full-blown theories about death, murder, divorce, and any number of other unsavory happenings. And this all happens in the space of a few hours online.

Feels grubby, doesn’t it? It is. The reason this tension of privacy never gets resolved with the royals is that it cannot be resolved while the royal family exists. They want privacy, but they are people whose lives are paid for by the public. They are, by their own definition, not allowed to be private individuals, as the Prince Harry schism proved. You’re in, and you’re in the public eye in royal-approved ways, or you’re out. And members of the family can tell the British press to be quiet about certain things, but they can’t tell Stefan in Bilbao to stop posting about how his cousin who lives in Kensington said Kate’s in a coma.

It seems likely we’ll see Kate again before too long. She may even decide to reveal details about what has been happening in her life since January. But whether or not she does, something permanent-seeming has shifted in the past 10 days with the public and the royals. I’m not sure people will buy what they’re selling quite as readily ever again.