The Royals Tried to Control Their Image Online. The Internet Had Other Ideas.

Trace back the digitally altered photograph of Catherine, Princess of Wales, and its roots lie in a tragedy of another Princess of Wales, Diana, whose death in 1997 predated the creation of Facebook by nearly seven years.

Diana’s fatal car accident, after a high-speed pursuit by photographers in Paris, left a lasting imprint on her sons, William and Harry. They grew up vowing not to take part in what they viewed as a pathological relationship between the royal family and the press, one in which they were the abused partners.

The rise of social media gave this younger generation of royals a way to bypass the tabloids they reviled, with popular platforms like Instagram and Twitter, where they could post carefully curated news and images of themselves, unmediated by the London papers or the lurking paparazzi.

But now they are experiencing the darker side of public life in the wild west of the web. Catherine’s photo, posted on social media and picked up by newspapers and broadcasters worldwide, has been swept into the maelstrom of rumors and conspiracy theories that have haunted her since she underwent abdominal surgery and receded from the public eye two months ago.

While William and Harry have struggled with these forces, the pressure has perhaps been most acute on their wives, Catherine and Meghan, who have taken turns being in the eye of an online storm. Meghan spoke recently about the “hateful” treatment she experienced while pregnant with her children.

“It must be so hard to deal with this,” said Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, the director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. “It is often women who are subjected to the worst bullying and harassment.”

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