JENI O’DOWD: Princess Kate rumours show misinformation is the price of the digital age

Jeni O’Dowd
The Nightly
4 Min Read
At 42 years of age, Kate Middleton is battling cancer. Instead of putting out a statement, Kate, showing incredible grace and bravery, sat down, looked directly at the camera, and told the world the truth.
At 42 years of age, Kate Middleton is battling cancer. Instead of putting out a statement, Kate, showing incredible grace and bravery, sat down, looked directly at the camera, and told the world the truth. Credit: Supplied/Supplied

This is the price of our digital age. It’s a place where celebrities and ordinary people alike act like a pack of hungry hyenas, easily making up lies for millions of people to read — and believe.

After all the endless chatter over social media — Kate Middleton was dead, she was in a coma, she was having an affair, her husband was having an affair, their marriage was over — the truth finally came out.

At 42 years of age, Kate Middleton is battling cancer. And unlike revealing this news to the world when she first found out, as King Charles did, she decided to wait until her three young children were out of school to protect them from the inevitable fallout.

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That’s what a mother does, even if she is a future queen. Protect their children at all costs.

And it’s no wonder she did as some of the comments circulating on social media were nothing short of despicable. Who knew how these same people would react to the very private news about her health?

The famous nobody Kim Kardashian joined in the gossip, posting photos of herself next to a car with the caption “on my way to find Kate”.

It wasn’t funny then and is definitely not now. And the woman hasn’t even had the grace to apologise.

Instead of putting out a statement, Kate, showing incredible grace and bravery, sat down, looked directly at the camera, and told the world the truth.

“This of course came as a huge shock, and William and I have been doing everything we can to process and manage this privately for the sake of our young family,” she said.

“As you can imagine, this has taken time. It has taken me time to recover from major surgery in order to start my treatment. But, most importantly, it has taken us time to explain everything to George, Charlotte and Louis in a way that is appropriate for them, and to reassure them that I am going to be OK.”

And there it is.

Despite the wild rumours circulating since January, Kate remained silent for the sake of her kids. Like most of us would.

FILE - Britain's Prince William, left, and Britain's Kate, Princess of Wales, attend a ceremonial welcome for the President and the First Lady of the Republic of Korea at Horse Guards Parade in London, England on Nov. 21, 2023. Charles' illness comes at a awkward time, as his daughter in law, the Princess of Wales, has also had her own health issues, having recently been hospitalized for two weeks following abdominal surgery following at the private London clinic. The former Kate Middleton won't be returning to public duties until after Easter and that will prompt other members of the royal family to pick up the slack.(Chris Jackson/Pool Photo via AP, File)
At 42 years of age, Kate Middleton is battling cancer. Credit: Chris Jackson/AP

Yes, as a royal who relies on the public purse their lives will be scrutinised. But they still have a right to privacy, especially in a very personal health battle.

This incident reminded me of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, when a pair of homemade bombs were detonated in the crowd at the finish line, killing three people and injuring more than 260.

Social media went wild. As police searched for the bombers, internet vigilantes conducted their own investigation — and claimed, amongst a litany of false sightings and misinformation, a missing Brown University student, Sunil Tripathi, was one of the bombers. The circus had begun and his parents were bombarded with messages of hate.

No, Sunil wasn’t a suspect. But for a while, millions of people believed he was a terrorist.

This case led to many academics investigating the use of social media. Researchers from the University of Washington even suggested a tool could be developed to let users know when a particular tweet was being questioned as untrue by another tweet.

Catherine Princess of Wales - Thank you for your kind wishes and continued support over the last two months.
Wishing everyone a Happy Mother's Day. 
The Prince of Wales, 2024
Catherine Princess of Wales - Thank you for your kind wishes and continued support over the last two months. Wishing everyone a Happy Mother's Day. The Prince of Wales, 2024 Credit: The Prince of Wales/instagram/supplied

While I am not quite sure how that would work (how would it know the difference between genuine misinformation and subjective disagreement?) Facebook, Google, TikTok, and Twitter (now X) need to do more to implement safeguards to reduce the magnitude of the problem.

If we don’t understand where fake news comes from and how it spreads, then how can we possibly combat it? How can we protect our kids from a world of damaging misinformation?

When newspapers, television and radio were the primary sources of information, authorities could easily stop the spread of misinformation with one simple phone call to the editor or news director.

As well, trained journalists are guided by both legal statutes and ethical standards and (mostly) adhere to a strict code of conduct.

But none of these restraints exist for anyone who feel they want to simply make something up and voice it on social media.

Remember the Scott Morrison Engadine McDonalds rumour? Started in 2018, it remained for years and re-emerged on social media in the lead-up to the 2022 election.

Eventually, the man who started the rumour — Rowan Dix, otherwise known as musician Joyride — came clean on the Hello Sport podcast and a clip shared on TikTok.

“I just tweeted it,” he later told Sydney radio show. “The intention was never for it to be a rumour.” Naive is an understatement.

With more and more young people relying on social media for their information, cases such as misinformation about a princess, an unknown university student, or a prime minister will not only continue but get worse.

In this digital age, misinformation spreads like wildfire, whether by the click of a button or the echo of a retweet.

Yes, the way we consume and share news has fundamentally changed. Yet, as social media platforms stand at the forefront of this revolution, their lack of action to stop or even slow rampant misinformation demands swift and radical action.

Jeni O’Dowd is the founder of lifestylenews.com.au

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