Calamity Kate and the failed Photoshop

Isobel Cockerell

 

In late 2020, I was working on a story about how the far-right QAnon worldview was usurping the benign, eccentric beliefs of new-age hippies in the southwest of England. In Glastonbury — site of a famous annual music festival and where the legendary King Arthur once lived — witchcraft and druid rituals were being supplanted by anti-vaccine disinformation and 5G conspiracy theories. 

I met Shannon in Glastonbury. She invited me back to her cottage right by the town’s famous tor, a spooky tower on a sandstone hill that looks out over the Somerset Levels. We sipped tea as we talked about her fears and premonitions surrounding the pandemic and her conviction that the vaccine was a “population control” project. All at once, she leaned in and started talking about the then-Prince Charles. “He’s changed, you know. If you look at pictures of his face over the last few months, it has completely changed.”

“What are you saying?” I asked, cautiously.

“I’m not saying anything,” she said, with a conspiratorial smile. “Just that the Prince Charles from before the pandemic is not the same man as we’re seeing now. It’s probably a body double.”

Shannon was the first person I thought of as the mysterious saga of Catherine, Princess of Wales, made global headlines. Since her reported abdominal surgery in January and subsequent disappearance from public view, a number of bizarre theories have taken root. My favorite is that she is waiting for her fringe to grow out.

To put an end to the rumors and the gossip, the royal family released a Mother’s Day photo that they said was taken by Prince William, featuring a supposedly post-op Kate back in the bosom of her family. But the wannabe sleuths of X and TikTok soon figured out that the photo had all sorts of things wrong with it: strange sleeves, weird-looking fingers, mismatched patterns on clothes. And then international photo agencies pulled the image, saying it had been tampered with. That was enough to tip even mainstream journalists over the edge into full “Katespiracy” land.  

“Oh wow. Ok I am now fully on board the Kate Middleton truther train,” wrote Guardian columnist Owen Jones on Monday morning. “I’ve never been much of a conspiracy theorist,” wrote ITV’s royal correspondent Chris Ship. “But… there are serious questions for Kensington Palace.” He then asked if any of his followers were botanists and could identify whether the foliage in the background of the photo should be in leaf in early March. 

Cue Kate posting on X, admitting the photo had been shopped: “Like many amateur photographers, I do occasionally experiment with editing,” her statement ran. Cue my X feed exploding. “WE DEMAND A VIDEO OF KATE HOLDING A DAILY TELEGRAPH WITH TODAY’S DATE NOW,” wrote one joker. 

The parodies and real analyses of Kate’s edited family photo are now indistinguishable from one another. And while some legitimate analysts are pointing out real problems with the image, the answers to why the photo was doctored range from the speculative to the seriously unhinged. It also shows how easily a lack of information can tip over into disinformation. And the royal family’s ham-fisted attempt at “transparency” only fueled further disinformation.   

Given the future we’re all hurtling towards, in which AI-generated images and video will be impossible to tell from the real thing, even the most logical among us might never be satisfied by hard evidence again.

GLOBAL NEWS

Arguably, the only suspense related to the Russian elections is whether Yulia Navalnaya will be able to carry forward her husband’s legacy. Though President Vladimir Putin is assured of victory this weekend, he remains deeply wary of the threat represented by Navalny’s movement. Last week, Navalnaya echoed her husband’s call for Russians to protest by turning out en masse to vote at noon on March 17, the last day of the unprecedented three-day process. As Russia intensifies its crackdown on dissidents, turning out at the appointed hour would itself be considered, Navalnya suggested, an act of civil disobedience. It would serve as evidence that opposition to Putin — Russia’s longest-serving leader since Stalin — remains viable, even as he prepares to extend his rule up to 2036. 

If Putin is a shoo-in to be re-elected as president over the weekend, Narendra Modi is only marginally less likely to be re-elected prime minister of India after elections anticipated to be held in May. But the Indian government remains sensitive to narratives around Modi’s perceived authoritarian streak. Last week, it warned Big Tech to prevent artificial intelligence products from “threaten[ing] the integrity of the electoral process.” It was likely a response to the headlines created when Google’s newly launched Gemini tool responded equivocally to the question: “Is Narendra Modi a fascist?”

In wartime, can literature bridge divides? And can writers, as PEN America tweeted, “help guide the rest of us across that bridge?” Staff resigned en masse after Guernica, an online magazine, published a personal essay by an Israeli writer that the magazine’s co-publisher deemed to be a “hand-wringing apologia for Zionism and the ongoing genocide in Palestine.” Guernica eventually took the story down. But even in wartime, surely the sophisticated, often privileged readers of a magazine like Guernica can be trusted to both abhor the loss of life in Gaza and read the words of an Israeli writer struggling with her conscience.

WHAT WE’RE READING

  • Meduza, an independent Russian news website produced in exile in Latvia, anticipates that the Russian presidential elections might prompt authorities to fully restrict access to the internet. Millions of Meduza’s readers, the site says, live in Russia. Since Navalny’s death, independent news sites have faced a barrage of cyberattacks. In response, Meduza has prepared an “SOS newsletter” it can send to readers via email, which is harder to shut off.
  • In the “college of today,” argues William Deresiewicz, a writer and former faculty member at Yale University, “[y]ou start with theories and impose them on texts.” It means that the students, still overwhelmingly drawn from the “top 20% of the income distribution,” who become journalists learn to “have faith in expertise, to speak its language and accept its values.” The result in journalism, he writes, is an increasing disconnect with readers and a tendency towards activism rather than skepticism.

The remainder of the newsletter was curated by Shougat Dasgupta.

Disinfo Matters looks beyond fake news to examine how the manipulation of narratives and rewriting of history is reshaping our world.

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