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Kate Middleton, Britney Spears and online trolls doubt their existence

Kate Middleton has long attracted unfounded rumors: she pressured an art gallery to remove a royal portrait! She separated from her husband! She changed her hairstyle to distract from pregnancy rumors! She didn't give birth to her daughter!

This year, speculation has accelerated. Mrs Middleton – now Catherine, Princess of Wales – has kept a low profile since Christmas. Kensington Palace said she was recovering from “a planned abdominal surgery” and he is unlikely to return to royal duties before Easter. Conspiracy theorists had other, more sinister ideas. The only explanation for the future queen's long absence, they said, was that she was missing, dying or dead, and someone was trying to cover up the matter.

“KATE MIDDLETON IS PROBABLY DEAD,” read an article on X, with the text flanked by skulls and screaming emojis.

In her invented death, the princess joins a host of other celebrities and public figures – from President Biden to Elon Musk – who many online sleuths have declared in recent months to be clones, body doubles, avatars generated by AI or otherwise not living people. , they breathe people.

For many who spread the lies, it's harmless fun: casual sleuthing that lasts only a few clicks, a boon for meme generators. Others, however, spendcountless hours” in pursuit, following other skeptics down rabbit holes and demanding that celebrities provide proof of life.

Whatever the motivation, what persists is an urge to question reality, misinformation experts say. Lately, despite ample and indisputable evidence to the contrary, the same sense of suspicion has contaminated conversations about electionsrace, health care And climate.

Much of the Internet now disagrees on basic facts, a phenomenon exacerbated by intensifying political polarization, distrust of institutions such as news and academia, and the rise of artificial intelligence and other technologies it can distort people perception of truth.

In such an environment, celebrity conspiracy theories have become a way to take control of a “really precarious, scary and troubling moment,” said Whitney Phillips, assistant professor of media and digital platform ethics at the University of Oregon.

“The darkness that characterizes our politics will insert itself into even the lightest articulations of speculation,” she said. “It just speaks to a sense of unease in the world.”

Pop culture history is steeped in post-mortem claims that famous deaths (like Elvis And Tupac) are still alive. Now comes the opposite.

These last few weeks, frantic online chat claimed Catherine was dead or even in an induced coma – a rumor dismissed by the palace as “ridiculous”. Internet sleuths said photos of Catherine in cars with his mother and her husband were actually another woman who was missing the moles from the princess's face.

Last week, the palace sparked more speculation with a picture of mother's day of the royal with her three children. Inconsistencies in the portrait's clothing and background led to rumors that the image was taken from old photos in an attempt to hide its true location. When Catherine apologized for edit imagethe hashtag #WhereIsKateMiddleton was trending on social media.

Another video The photo of Catherine and her husband in a store in recent days was scrutinized by conspiracy theorists who said she looked too blurry, too healthy, too thin, with too flat hair , too unprotected by bodyguards to really be the princess. This week, after a video showing the Union flag flying at half-mast at Buckingham Palace began circulating, social media users interpreted the footage as a sign that either the Princess or King Charles III, who suffered from cancer, had died. The video turned out to be of a building in Istanbul in 2022after the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

Recycled images, easy-to-make computer-generated images, general reluctance of most audiences to Fact Check claims that are easily refuted and even foreign disinformation efforts can contribute to fueling doubt about the existence or independence of celebrities. There are rumors that Mr. Biden will be played by several masked actors, including Jim Carrey. Mr. Musk is one of up to 30 clonesaccording to rapper Kanye West (himself often they say it's a clone). Last year, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin was confronted in a news conference streamed by an AI-generated version of himself Questions about her rumored body double.

Glimpses into celebrity lives were once carefully curated and rationed by a limited set of media outlets, said Moya Luckett, a media historian at New York University. Few public figures have faced the kind of outcry that Paul McCartney caused in 1969, when a rumor circulated that the Beatle had died years earlier and been replaced by a lookalike. The supposed evidence – flashing lyrics and secret messages in reverse tracks on Beatles songs – so captivated the public that Mr McCartney attended the hearing. several interviews and photo shoots to prove his presence on the mortal plane.

These days, celebrity content is widely and constantly available. Audience engagement is a crucial (and often solicited) part of the advertising apparatus; privacy is not. Reality is photoshopped and filtered, allowing certain public figures to appear timeless while arousing unreasonable suspicion of those who do not.

When fans believe a famous person is in distress, solving the case is treated as a community-bonding activity born from a “sense of entitlement under the guise of concern,” Dr. Luckett said. She calls this practice “trolling.”

“It's about wanting to control how this person responds to me, wanting to be part of their narrative: I've already exhausted all the information available, and now I need more,” she said. declared, noting that a similar impulse drives today's obsession with true crime stories. “I don’t think you necessarily want to save or help.”

Britney Spears, fresh out restrictive guardianshipshared a series of unfiltered and often eccentric messages last year that some fans read as evidence that she had been replaced by a replacement.

Britney's so-called truthers analyzed what they saw as discrepancies in Ms. Spears' tattoos, the gaps between her teeth and the color of her eyes. On one forum, a thread titled “She’s been cloned!” » garnered nearly 400 comments. A popular hashtag misrepresented Ms Spears' most famous lyrics in #itsbritneyglitch, which appeared alongside claims that a lookalike was using an AI filter to imitate the singer online.

Ms Spears, who was filmed in Las Vegas this year, has repeatedly rejected lies about her disappearance or death. “It makes me sick to my stomach that it’s even legal for people to make up stories that I almost died,” she said. wrote on Instagram in February last year. A few months later, she posted (then deleted) “I'm not dead!!! » She was quoted by People in October saying, “No more conspiracy, no more lies.”

Peddlers of conspiracy theories are not necessarily believers: some of the main voices behind the lies about election fraud have admitted to court that their claims were false. Ed Katrak Spencer, a lecturer in digital cultures at Queen Mary University of London, said publicly trying to unmask a fake celebrity could seem playful.

This month, a years-old conspiracy theory involving singer Avril Lavigne resurfaced in a ironic podcast by comedian Joanne McNally, who named her first episode “What the Hell”. The claim – that Ms Lavigne died and was supplanted by a look-alike – comes from a Brazilian blog titled “April Está Morta”, or “April is dead”, which himself noted “how likely the world is to believe in things, no matter how strange they may be.” » In 2017, more than 700 people signed an online petition urging Ms. Lavigne and her double to provide “proof of life”.

“Fans are vocal performers themselves; the web and particularly TikTok are performance platforms,” Dr Spencer said. “It's more about content creation and circulation, all of that existing as a sort of stage. It’s all about the attention economy.

Dr. Spencer, who worked on academic documents on Beyoncé-related rumors, said it's possible to undo celebrity conspiracy theories. In 2020, a politician in Florida accused the singer of faking her black heritage “to gain notoriety” and said she was actually an Italian named Ann Marie Lastrassi in connection with a deep state conspiracy involving the Black Lives Matter movement.

His supporters, BeyHive, adopted “Lastrassi” as a term of endearment and incorporated it into fan fiction and online tributes. Beyoncé herself responded to claims that she and her husband, Jay-Z, are in a relationship secret societysinging on “Formation” that “y’all hate this Illuminati mess.”

“It all comes back to the question of authenticity and the crisis of confidence in people's perception of authenticity,” Dr. Spencer said. “People are constantly questioning what they see.”

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