A new war started in 2018, and it’s a take-no-prisoners affair with major implications for the future of the royal family. The once-genteel, even genial, online world of royal watching has been turned upside down and inside out as fans of Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, duel for social media supremacy and, in the process, tear down anyone who dares to challenge their view of the royal world. There’s no room for divided loyalties: praising one means automatically “hating” the other.
Signs of the slagging aren’t hard to find. Just dive into the royal family’s own social media accounts, then follow the online infection trail. “Please give us MORE MORE MORE of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Sick to absolute death of fake narcissistic MeAgain Markle,” a commenter wrote on a photo of Prince William and Kate on the royal family’s Instagram account. Kate is “clinging to dear life to Willnot [sic]. His attention is on HRH Meghan,” says another beside a Kensington Palace photo of Kate at a laboratory. “Kate will never be on Meghan’s level, all that lazy consort did was marry a Prince, she don’t know about working, and connecting with others, don’t disrespect Meghan like that,” writes @HRHmegh on Twitter. “Meghan speak so bad and she was fake and she is an actress she know who act. But Kate always is natural,” comments another.
“It is really unbelievable,” says Susan Kelley, who is near the epicentre of the Kate vs. Meghan fan wars because of her two popular royal fashion websites—What Kate Wore, which she started in 2011, and What Meghan Wore, which she co-manages with Susan Courter. “Every time I tell people about it who aren’t in the Kate-Meghan world, they are incredulous.” While the two Susans, as they are known, approve comments before they are posted on the Meghan and Kate sites, “on certain days you can’t go 30 to 60 minutes without checking” Facebook to delete over-the-top comments, Kelley notes.
The reason for the sudden increase in vitriol isn’t hard to find. Seven years after marrying Prince William and being the only leading young female royal, Kate has “competition” in the form of a beautiful American former actress, Meghan Markle, who married Prince Harry in May. William, Kate, Harry and Meghan may be known as the “Fab Four,” but to fans, it’s an either-or choice. The Meghan and Kate acolytes appear to be very young, and accustomed to a social media world that not only condones but seems to encourage anonymous insults. It’s not for nothing that such devotees are known as “stans,” a combination of stalker and fan.
The fans aren’t living in an “and” world but in an “or” one. “Don’t get out of your lane, don’t be coming into my lane,” is how Kelley sees them. “This has been just extraordinarily troubling to me,” she continues. “This is 2018. If this was two men, this would not be happening. I thought we were beyond this…There is something so off, the level of hatred and how intense it is, and the volume.” Perhaps most disturbing for everyone is the level of intolerance, even racism. Not only is Meghan, the daughter of a black mother and white father, the focus of racist attacks, but her fans, in turn, quickly toss the “r” word at perceived Meghan opponents.
Susan Kelley isn’t alone. Everyone reports the same thing—a sudden, disquieting increase in harassing attacks that seem completely over-the-top given the rather sedate royal topics being discussed, including fashion, engagements, living arrangements, protocol and even the state of a curtsy or bow. “I have witnessed what amounts to be roving Twitter gangs that find a tweet/blog post about Meghan and kind of rally the troops and stoke up the fires and suddenly you have a hail storm of abuse flowing at you,” explains Jane Barr, who runs the From Berkshire to Buckingham fashion site, which focuses on Kate. “For me, it is very frustrating to write a nuanced analysis and have people just take a black-and-white interpretation and run wild with it.”
“I think it is indicative of a larger societal problem,” says Barr. “We have an inability to listen to other people, and reason and debate together as a community. The ramifications are obvious for free democratic societies, and very concerning.” In seven years of blogging, Barr has blocked two people for foul language. In the past year, she’s blocked between 15 and 20 for “completely out of control behaviour.”
Royal outrage is complicated by a transatlantic culture clash. Many intense Meghan Markle fans are Americans who don’t understand the monarchy, its place in British society and how there has always been criticism of the family, royal author Victoria Arbiter told the Express. “The American community doesn’t have anything like the royal family so they can only liken them to celebrities or politicians,” she explained. Their lack of knowledge of the intricacies of royal life, protocol and history explains some comments. For instance, they can interpret a photo being posted on a royal feed as a sign of the Queen’s personal approval for Kate or Meghan, their clothes or their behaviour, rather than the work of a member of the royal media department.
“Celebrity rivalries are always conducted by us, the fans, the people who buy the concert or theatre tickets, the records, the merchandise and who send the memes through social media,” contends Ellis Cashmore, a sociology professor at Aston University in England whose book Kardashian Kulture will be published in early 2019. “It helps if there is genuine animosity, but it’s far, far from essential—or even necessary. As long as we think they’re fighting, that’s enough to sustain the feud. We enjoy the feuds so much, we’re tempted to take sides and engage, albeit vicariously. Today, social media has made this easy; so much so that fans can keep the fight going independently of the principals.”
Many stans believe that Meghan and/or Kate don’t like each other and are coming between the close relationship of brothers William and Harry. The reality that the two brothers now have their own families and own priorities doesn’t appear to factor into their online fights. Every new bit of information—Harry and Meghan leaving the tiny two-bedroom Nottingham Cottage around the corner from William and Kate’s London residence for a larger house on the Windsor estate, or reports that they are ending their joint staffing arrangement, established when they were teens—is fought over. To some, the former Meghan Markle is the Yoko Ono of Kensington Palace: “Megan [sic] is the reason for the split between William and Harry,” commented one fan on the royal Instagram feed.
And in the busy autumn season of royal engagements, the war may be at a tipping point. Earlier in 2018, the work schedules of the two popular duchesses didn’t overlap. At the beginning of the year, the focus was on Kate while Meghan slowly dipped her toe into royal engagements. Then, when Kate went on maternity leave in late March, the focus swung back to Meghan, who married Harry in a wedding watched by billions. Kate stayed largely out of the public eye until after Harry and Meghan completed their high-profile tour of Australia, Fiji, Tonga and New Zealand.
But now, both royal women are both doing royal work, both based in their London home of Kensington Palace. And that’s setting up an inevitable “showdown” between how the media covers them—who gets top billing, who gets criticized? The palace, no doubt aware that social media is swimming in bile and acid, appears to be trying to mitigate the intense fan reactions. On Nov. 21, both Meghan and Kate were out and about in London, yet their schedules were carefully timed to not conflict with each other. As well, neither event touched on the subject matter of the other, and neither was announced to the public in advance.
In the morning, the Duchess of Sussex went to the Hubb Community Kitchen. Meghan had been making private visits there since January and, with the help of funds raise by a charitable cookbook she helped create, the women are making 200 meals daily for local groups in the area, devastated by the Grenfell Tower fire. A few hours later, Kate arrived at University College London’s developmental neuroscience lab to be briefed on the latest “research into how environment and biology interact to shape the way in which children develop both socially and emotionally.” Coincidently (or not), both wore outfits in shades of burgundy and plum. The preparations paid off. The Express put the two on its front page with the headline “Double duchess: Kate and Meghan’s copy-cat fashions.” For the record, the large photo was of Meghan, the inset of Kate.
The irony is that the Kate and Meghan stans are engaging in behaviour the royal women they profess to adore would find abhorrent. All four of the young royals are committed to raising the profile of mental health issues, including the negative effects of social media. On Nov. 15, William gave a powerful speech about the harmful effects of cyberbullying: “When I worked as an air ambulance pilot or travelled around the country campaigning on mental health, I met families who had suffered the ultimate loss. For too many, social media and messaging was supercharging the age-old problem of bullying, leaving some children to take their own lives when they felt it was unescapable.”
“I am very concerned though that on every challenge they face—fake news, extremism, polarization, hate speech, trolling, mental health, privacy, and bullying—our tech leaders seem to be on the back foot,” William continued before issuing a challenge: “You have powered amazing movements of social change. Surely together you can harness innovation to allow us to fight back against the intolerance and cruelty that has been brought to the surface by your platforms.”
Cashmore doesn’t see the Kate/Meghan social media battle stopping any time soon. “The beauty of our screen society is that, once people get on their phones or laptops, they become a force majeure—nothing and no one can stop them,” he explains. “If they say there’s an argument, then there’s an argument. Meghan and Kate can deny it all they like; it won’t alter a thing!”
There seems little room for neutral observers. Journalists are taking it from all sides. Any criticism—real or imagined—of one duchess is perceived by many fans as an attack, and also favouritism for the other royal woman. In the past year, virtually every full-time royal correspondent in London issued a plea for tolerance on Twitter. After being accused of everything from bias to racism, Richard Palmer of the Daily Express wrote, “We have all faced unpleasant and unfounded accusations of racism towards Meghan.” He pinned a tweet to the top of his account stating that “with the exception of a few I have known for years, I’ve decided I will only now engage with those who share their real identities.” Some journalists are also blocking extreme fans.
And the attacks don’t just stop at those who critique. The fans demand total loyalty. As Richard Palmer commented on Twitter, “As far as I can see the pitchfork brigade have just regarded anything not 100-per-cent gushing as racist ever since with no evidence.” Susan Kelley has seen the same: it’s not enough to speak the truth, but they many readers accept only “complimentary, laudatory things.”
Netty Leistra, a veteran Netherlands-based royal journalist and blogger, has tried to avoid the Kate vs. Meghan fight, but an online critic called her a racist a few months ago for saying “absolutely nothing special.” For Leistra, the current phenomenon brings back memories of around 15 years ago, when Australian Mary Donaldson married Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark. In the era before Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, she and a few others ran an online forum about the couple. Soon, the anti-Mary folk were battling with the pro-Mary fans. “The bad thing to us was that we tried to be objective, and in the end we were the ones being attacked for not protecting any of the two sides,” she recounts. In the end, they stopped the forum.
Today, no one thinks things will improve any time soon. Both Kate and Meghan are full-time working royals, both gearing up their charitable activities, Kate after her maternity leave, Meghan as she settles into her new royal role. Perhaps a break will come when Meghan gives birth in the spring and steps away from the public spotlight to concentrate on being a mother. Meanwhile, royal watchers who want to engage in polite conversations and debates are trying to block the more extreme commenters, and hoping tempers will cool—or interest will die down.