KateGate took the internet by storm. Now the tone has changed to sympathy and regret

Putting an end to weeks of frenzied speculation and wild rumours, the Princess of Wales revealed Friday that she has cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy.

And very quickly, the tone online changed from jokes about Catherine’s so-called disappearance to sympathy and regret, with some people saying they were ashamed, and others saying the princess deserves an apology.

“I think a lot of people that have been making jokes online are really going to regret it,” Ellie Hall, a freelance royal correspondent, told CBC News Network. 

“And I think that some prominent public figures who have made tongue-in-cheek remarks or, again, jokes, posted memes, are really going to be feeling bad.” 

WATCH | Catherine reveals cancer diagnosis:

WATCH | Princess of Wales says she’s receiving cancer treatment

Catherine, the Princess of Wales, says in a video released to her social media pages that tests after her surgery revealed ‘cancer had been present,’ and that she is in the early stages of preventive chemotherapy.

Questions swirled since surgery

Questions have swirled about Catherine’s health since Jan. 17, when Kensington Palace announced her planned abdominal surgery. At that point, she hadn’t been seen publicly since Christmas Day. The initial statement offered no other details, other than clarifying that her condition wasn’t cancerous.

But on Friday, in a video message, Catherine revealed that further tests after her surgery showed that “cancer had been present.” At the advice of her medical team, she said she has been undergoing preventative chemotherapy.

“This of course came as a huge shock, and William and I have been doing everything we can to process and manage this privately for the sake of our young family,” she said, referring to her husband, Prince William, and their children, Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis. 

“As you can imagine, this has taken time. It has taken me time to recover from major surgery in order to start my treatment. But, most importantly, it has taken us time to explain everything to George, Charlotte and Louis in a way that is appropriate for them, and to reassure them that I am going to be OK.”

In a statement, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said that Catherine has been “subjected to intense scrutiny and has been unfairly treated by certain sections of the media around the world and on social media.”

“When it comes to matters of health, like everyone else, she must be afforded the privacy to focus on her treatment and be with her loving family.”

Tone abruptly shifts

From the beginning, Kensington Palace was clear: Catherine was unlikely to return to public duties until after Easter, and the palace would only provide updates “when there is significant new information to share.”

But in an information vacuum, people created their own theories, and the hashtag #KateGate trended online.

People have made tongue-in-cheek posts suggesting that the princess was growing out bangs or recovering from a Brazilian butt lift. Many people theorized that William might be having an affair, that Catherine might be much sicker than the palace was letting on, or joked that Camilla is having her “Saltburn moment,” playing the long game to destroy the Royal Family from the inside out.

Some major companies and figures made jokes, as well, taking part in a popular meme making fun of a recent video sighting of William and Catherine that many believed to be fake. The Dublin Airport joked that the duo were looking “happy and relaxed” in an image it shared of them superimposed in a terminal, for instance.

Kim Kardashian joked she was going to find Kate herself, late-night talk show host Stephen Colbert “spilled the tea” on rumours of an affair and the Washington Post published an editorial cartoon depicting Prince William manipulating a puppet of his wife in front of a palace window. 

Even the King of the Netherlands made a Photoshop joke, seemingly in reference to the Mother’s Day image of Catherine and her children that was revealed to have been edited and retracted by several news agencies.

In light of the Princess’s diagnosis, the tone online changed quickly to sheepishness.

“All the Kate Middleton and Royal family jokes I laughed at these past couple of weeks and to find out she’s been battling cancer … I’m going to hell,” one person wrote on X.

“Hoo boy we are all a bunch of assholes,” wrote another.

The news ‘nobody wanted’

“This was the news absolutely nobody wanted,” Hall, the royal correspondent, told CBC News Network.

Many people online also expressed anger and dismay that Catherine blamed herself for the debacle over her Mother’s Day photo, making a statement that she liked to experiment with photo editing, and apologizing for the confusion — while she had cancer.

WATCH | Social media took scrutiny to another level: 

Public scrutiny of royals nothing new — but social media is taking it to another level, royal commentator says

Carolyn Harris, a royal commentator and historian, says the Royal Family has seen periods where its members’ health has attracted major attention. But the feverish social media hype around the Princess of Wales in recent weeks shows how a ‘vast cross-section’ of the public around the world is taking speculation to new heights.

“All she really wanted was privacy,” royal commentator Edward Wang told CBC News Network. “And to have those rumours and conspiracy theories spun around the internet and around the world about her for the last two months would have been incredibly difficult.”

He said in light of that “insatiable interest” in getting details about her condition, the news is now hitting a lot of people hard. 

“As someone who speculated on this without considering it could be a serious health condition, I’m very ashamed to be honest, and all the very best to her,” wrote a user on X.

“Perhaps the media can now stop deciding if she is too thin or too puffy, too put together or too run down, too secret or too desperate for public approval. Even a royal lady, even the royal chalice of the future kings of Britain, deserves a bit of humanity,” a commentary writer said in the Washington Examiner Friday.

“Catherine deserves all of our prayers, if not an apology.”

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