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What is the New Reality? The Kate Middleton Photo Controversy


Photo of Kate Middleton and Family
Photo Source: Vogue France (https://www.vogue.fr/)

As news and speculation about “missing” Princess Kate Middleton spread across the internet over the past two weeks, it became evident that consumers of media are no longer willing to take what they see at face value.  


When Kensington Palace, William and Kate’s arm of the royal family, issued a photo purportedly taken by the future King of England of Kate and their children on Mother’s Day (March 10 in the UK), a frenzy erupted on the internet as average internet users began pointing out inconsistencies in the photo -- an interrupted pattern on a sweater, a manipulated sleeve -- and it was pulled from wire services on the grounds that it had been manipulated beyond normal standards. 


With the boom in artificial intelligence (AI) well underway, people are looking more critically at what they see on the internet and on television. As AI technology evolves at a breakneck pace, average laypersons are educating themselves about it, and learning to recognize when photos and videos have been manipulated. Across Tiktok, X, Facebook, and Instagram, thousands of videos broke down the photo in excruciating detail.




The speculation was fueled by 24-hour news outlets in the US and UK providing their own analysis [1].  It was a public relations nightmare for the Palace, which responded to the controversy by having Kate issue a tweet taking responsibility for editing the photo. 


The fallout from the photo, which was presumably meant as to allay questions about the Princess’ whereabouts, sparked further controversy and mistrust among the public, and exposed one of the potential pitfalls of the public being self-taught media sleuths. 


As the online fervor dissipated, a new video of the Princess emerged, as she was spotted shopping at an outdoor market with her husband.  Rampant speculation ensued, as nearly-duped internet users rolled out new conspiracies about the video, snaring even TMZ in the analysis [2].  Memes flooded X, joking that the Kate in the video was not THE Kate [3]. 


As AI and photo editing technology evolves, a balance will need to be struck between media literacy and conspiracy mongering. The rapid expansion of the tech means that media consumers will have to remain on their toes when taking in content, paying attention to context clues, source of the material, and known editing red flags such as those identified in the offending photo. This week’s fervor over the royal photo and video gave a peek into what that will look like for many internet users, and the potential outcomes both positive and negative.




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