As solemn reports of the Queen’s death dominated TV bulletins and newspaper headlines, online another kind of royal content was drawing in millions of views.
Posts containing abuse and misinformation were widely shared on social media in the days after the news broke – many of them aimed at Camilla, the new Queen Consort.
Doctored photos of the Duchess of Sussex and posts claiming that Queen Elizabeth had been murdered because she kept secrets on politicians, or was killed by the Covid-19 vaccine, were also widely shared, analysis shows.
good TikTokthe fastest-growing news source in the UK, whose user base is dominated by Gen Z, the most watched royal-themed clips included those that derided Camilla’s appearance and pitted her against the late Diana, Princess of Wales.
One video, liked 1.1 million times on TikTok since it was posted a week ago, contained a montage of photos of Camilla and Diana. The captions read: “The woman he cheated with… The woman he cheated on,” prompting vitriolic comparisons between the women in the comment section.
Others called Camilla “cowmilla” or an “evil witch”, and claimed that she was a “puppet-master” in the royal family who was “struggling to contain how happy she is” about the Queen’s death. Many were promoted by accounts claiming to be run by young fans of Diana.
Other accounts shared doctored photos of Meghan, suggesting that she had been pictured wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “the Queen is dead”. On Twitter, one post containing the image with the caption “I can’t believe Meghan went there” was liked 27,000 times.
Back on TikTok, several videos claimed to show Meghan at the Queen’s funeral and criticized her for copying an old outfit of Diana’s. One was liked 3.7 million times – though the funeral, scheduled for Monday, had not yet taken place.
The content gives an insight into the nature of some of the information about the royal family being pushed to those who get their news on social media.
While the Duchess of Sussex has been targeted repeatedly with abuse online, the vilification of Camilla is a newer phenomenon among young people.
For years after the breakup of Diana’s marriage to Charles in 1996, Camilla was characterized by some in the media as a “marriage wrecker”, blamed by many for their separation and the princess’s subsequent death. The coverage has softened, now focusing on her charity work and portraying her as friendly and approachable.
Active communities for Diana fans and Camilla critics continued to operate, but their reach was largely confined to Facebook groups, which members choose to join. On TikTok, anti-Camilla content – which has been growing in popularity since the broadcast of the Netflix drama The Crown – has been widely promoted to young people in recent days.
Dr Laura Clancy, a media lecturer at Lancaster University who has studied media representations of the royal family, said that the “drip, drip of negative coverage” could have an effect on shaping Gen Z views on the royal family at a time when debates about its role in modern society has been intensifying.
For many, their first exposure to information about the new King and Queen Consort could be on social media. “While much of it isn’t explicitly anti-monarchy, it is certainly creating a discourse around the monarchy in a way that isn’t set by the official narrative,” Clancy said. Researchers from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) identified 16 channels on the messaging app Telegram where conspiracies were shared, with a joint total of 1,369,444 followers.
Another post circulated widely online falsely claimed that before she died, the Queen announced that she had information that could lead to the arrest of former US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The claim matches a years-old conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton and her husband, Bill Clinton, kill their political opponents, according to fact-checkers for the news agency AFP.
While motives for posting anti-royal content vary, doing so can generate large returns for account-holders in the form of views, likes, follows and advertising revenue.
As it does for newspapers and websites, royal content can generate traffic from global audiences for social media creators. In the UK, Google searches have been dominated by queries relating to the royals since the Queen’s death, with nine of the top 10 trending search terms including references to Her late Majesty or the new King.
Some of the accounts posting anti-Camilla and Meghan content appear to have started doing so specifically to capitalize on the increased interest in the royals. One that previously posted videos of the Kardashians pivoted to posting hate content about Camilla hours after the Queen’s death was announced.
Dr Sophie Bishop, an expert in influencer culture and social media algorithms at Sheffield University’s school of management, said accounts were often rewarded for pushing out “huge volumes” of content and that the most polarizing posts often performed best. “Even if you’re [posting] a video because you’re criticizing it, you’re still amplifying it,” she said. “It does really well because you have the negative and the positive response.”
Imran Ahmed, from the CCDH, added that the wave of posts showed how bad actors seek to “exploit the opportunity” of big news events by spreading misinformation and hateful content that is then “amplified” by platforms to boost engagement. “It’s beyond doubt that platforms amplify this kind of content because it gets people talking and drives eyeballs, which therefore drives revenue,” he said.
The business models risk having a “net effect on an entire generation”, he added. “This is bigger than a debate about the royals. If we see something more frequently we think it’s more likely to be true. That can shape young minds in a really dangerous way.”