Kate Middleton Has Everyone Talking Like a Conspiracy Theorist

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Earlier this week, I woke up, checked my phone, and noticed that everyone online seemed fixated on the same question: Where is Kate Middleton?

Many of these people were not devoted Royal Family watchers. Rather, they were casual perusers of the internet who’d seen a post, a message-board thread, or an article on the princess of Wales’s recent absence from public life and found themselves hacking through a dense jungle of rumors. Now curious, I opened a web browser and learned that Middleton, according to Kensington Palace, was hospitalized on January 16 for an abdominal surgery related to an undisclosed but noncancerous issue. She spent two weeks recovering at a clinic, and officials said she would not be making any public appearances until after Easter.

Middleton’s extended recovery time raised suspicions, especially in British tabloids. But it wasn’t really until this week—when Prince William, citing personal reasons, unexpectedly announced he would not attend his godfather’s memorial service—that speculation about the princess’s whereabouts took on a more conspiratorial tone. In short order, amateur sleuths sorted through various browser tabs and tea leaves, finding what they believed were clues. “You’re telling me that Kate Middleton—the same woman who posed outside the hospital like a freaking supermodel mere hours after giving birth—suddenly requires months of recovery before showing her face?” one poster wrote on X. “And the British press now magically respects privacy? This feels … sinister.”

Another pseudonymous account pieced together an intricate timeline of Middleton’s past three months, color-coded to distinguish official statements from rumors. Some baselessly speculated that she’d fallen into a coma or that her marriage was in trouble. Many, many others made the delightfully absurd suggestion that she was getting a Brazilian butt lift. In one scenario, she’s just waiting for her bangs to grow out. The conjecture became so frenzied that the palace was moved to release another statement today, noting that it had been “very clear from the outset” about Middleton’s recovery period and that she was doing well.

Obsessive interest and uninformed rumor-mongering about Royal Family drama is a time-honored tradition both in the U.K. and abroad. But this particular palace intrigue has everyone talking like a conspiracy theorist. Even people who profess only a casual interest in the story winkingly self-identify as Kate Middleton “truthers” or as “falling down the rabbit hole” while reading posts on Reddit and X, or watching slickly edited royal-conspiracy videos on TikTok. “I can feel myself descending into being a Kate Middleton truther,” one X user wrote of their recent obsession. “Is this what people feel like when they turn Q”?

In this way, the Middleton story is a collision of two popular cultures: conspiracy theorizing, now fully mainstream, and classic celebrity gossip. It makes for a weird scene. Here is an extremely public person’s private health matter being dissected with the rabidity of an Infowars segment, while accompanied by ironic internet jokes that mimic the Alex Jones vibe even as they mock it. The humor, memes, reckless speculation, paranoia, and layers of meta-commentary have become the lingua franca of the internet and, by extension, popular culture, where innocent-enough memes and conspiracies blend until the distinction feels almost irrelevant. This is how we talk about celebrities now.

One phrase in particular exemplifies this tendency: “I need to know everything.” These five words have become the unofficial catchphrase of the internet. On social media, posting “I need to know everything” is often an innocent way to signal an intense interest in something new and a desire to get lost in the lore, details, and endless theorizing that the internet helps provide. Search for the phrase on X and you’ll see people using it to comment on anything and everything, whether it’s photos of an old dog or whatever happened at that disastrous Willy Wonka experience in Glasgow. “I need to know everything” is also the motto of the paranoid online vigilante investigator—the “do your own research” types who see everything as evidence and piece together tenuous scraps of information to jump to shoddy conclusions about topics as varied as vaccines, cold cases, and the personal lives of strangers, often harming others in the process. The phrase’s flexibility reflects a shared understanding among these people that the internet is a place where one can and should expect to have access to any and all information. Not being able to find something out quickly, then, is a little exciting and immediately suspicious.

To dissect the discourse around Middleton right now is to see a cross section of internet culture where every major news story gets piled atop one another until they all bleed together. There’s a Photoshopped image of Middleton holding hands with serial famous-person dater Pete Davidson; a newly voluptuous Middleton shows up as a worker at the Glasgow Wonka debacle. Most of this is standard memeing dressed up as conspiracy theorizing. People who “need to know everything” are commenting on their genuine interest in the news while also noting that, yes, the speculation is a bit unhinged and that the internet often pushes people toward paranoid extremes. Appropriating the language of conspiracy theories and rabbit holes is thus a cheeky way to talk about something while acknowledging these weird online dynamics, which are simultaneously off-putting and unifying. It is the 2024 version of standing in the grocery-store checkout line and thumbing through the National Enquirer while shooting the clerk a knowing smile—I know, right?!

Those who are sufficiently online (myself very much included) like to joke about the way that information overexposure addles a person over time. Many of the Middleton-absence memes are a knowing way for people to signal their extreme onlineness and laugh at themselves. But I also sense that it signals a deeper anxiety under the surface—a feeling that the instantaneous access to everything, all at once, has a corrosive effect and that it amplifies and accentuates our least-generous impulses.

The need to know everything is, frequently, a selfish one, and often that knowledge comes at a cost to others. Because although the Middleton memes are mostly silly and reflect a genuine commentary on the very real absurdities and opacity of the modern Royal Family, they’re also dark and voyeuristic—a sea of people having fun online because it is unclear whether a famous person is well or not. It’s fun to cosplay conspiracy theorist, and I don’t begrudge people having fun online at the expense of stuffy royals. But two things can be true at once. People adopt the language of internet cranks in part to mock them and take away their power, but perhaps also to hide from the uncomfortable notion that, after decades of living online, there is less daylight between the two camps than they’d like to admit.

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