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Perhaps the previous generations did have it easier.
Princess Diana, Princess Margaret, even Wallis Simpson… maybe, no matter how exhausting public life became and no matter how much the press picked them over, they were lucky to have avoided the Twitter era.
Of course, they all suffered mightily at the hands of regular paper-and-ink news outlets and good old-fashioned photographers, so to compare their experiences too favorably is a fallacy.
But as most people, royal and civilian, know by now, social media has made it possible for the least civil discourse imaginable to take place 24 hours a day, every day. So while it’s imperative that the young royals maintain a (strictly curated) presence on Twitter and Instagram in order to impress their modernity and relatability on the world, their accounts have also conveniently provided a forum for trolls to unload on one of the newer members of the family.
Meghan Markle has been the subject of so much online abuse, much of it delivered straight to the Kensington Palace Twitter and Instagram accounts that she and Prince Harry share with Prince William and Kate Middleton, that the royal family has been forced to publish guidelines basically instructing people how to not be malignant idiots on social media—and threatening to get police involved if they persist in crossing certain lines.
With her first child due this spring, Meghan doesn’t need any additional headaches or heartburn, literal or figurative, so it’s comforting to think she doesn’t spend much time scrolling these days. In any case, it’s royal staffers who have been monitoring this online situation for a long time, probably even from the moment it became public knowledge that Harry had a girlfriend. They were the ones privy to how dire the situation was getting, resulting in the issuance of what amounts to a Facebook-generation decree from Buckingham Palace, Clarence House and Kensington Palace.
Inevitably numerous people took issue with the statement, commenting that it amounted to censorship and was a real medieval move.
The guidelines aren’t all that far off from Twitter’s, in that spam, various forms of discrimination, hate speech et al. fall outside the category of protected speech, though the royals have also asked that comments not be “off-topic, irrelevant or unintelligible.” Good luck with that.
“The Palace has always monitored comments but it’s a hugely time consuming thing,” a source told Hello! in January, when the magazine launched its #HelloToKindness campaign promoting positivity—or civility, at the very least—online. “They can block certain words, but some of it is quite serious. Over the course of last year, with hundreds of thousands of comments, there were two or three that were violent threats. You can delete and report and block people and the police have options around particular people. It’s something you have to manage because there’s no other way to control it.”
Meghan Markle and Abigail Spencer are seen leaving “Cafe Boulud” on the Upper East Side ahead of her baby shower.
Meghan shuttered her personal Instagram account months before she got married, one of numerous steps the Suits star was taking to wipe the slate clean for royalty. She reportedly told a woman she was chatting with during her and Harry’s tour of Australia in October that not being on social media felt “freeing,” as “flattery and criticism run through the same filter.”
It was recently reported, however, that she had set up a secret Instagram account to keep up with her friends—until the vitriol that inevitably found its way even to that account prompted her to shut it down in December.
“It really got to her and, in the end, she had to shut down that account just before Christmas, too, to protect her mental health. She felt very isolated and alone,” a source told The Sun in January. (Funny how “social” media tends to have that effect on so many.)
Moreover, threatening language—the kind the royals are trying to crack down on—left both Meghan and Harry concerned about more than their Twitter mentions.
“Harry has fed into this—he’s hugely protective and doesn’t want her to be put at any risk, so that understandable worry has made her very uneasy,” The Sun‘s source added. “There is no way she’d consider putting her personal safety and that of her unborn child at risk.”
Over the years, Harry and William have warily embraced the media as a way to contribute to important social conversations and promote the causes they hold dear—but they understandably started out having a prickly relationship with the press, from their own experiences as oft-hounded princes and because of the role that the so-called quest for news gathering played in their mother’s death.
Harry first confirmed that he and Meghan were dating with a statement from the palace entreating the media—and people in general—to check their racism and sexism and please treat his girlfriend with respect. The fascination with Meghan only increased a thousand-fold from there, once she was officially outed as Harry’s girlfriend, but one would think that the other message—reminiscent of one William had to send in 2007 out of concern for Kate’s privacy after the paparazzi started harassing her—would have resonated more.
Online behavioral guidelines may be new, but bad behavior is not.
Chris Jackson / Clarence House via Getty Images
Though Meghan is the newest, shiniest star in the sky, the palace guidelines were also issued pressingly with Kate in mind, the Duchess of Cambridge being the other side of the easy-target coin. As anyone who follows politics knows, when folks take sides and decide that their side is in the right, they’ll go to great lengths to prove their argument—and such is the case with “Team Meghan” versus “Team Kate.” And for that matter, a tweet in response to the tweet announcing the new policy regarding tweets noted that perhaps the directive would “help stop the vitriol aimed at the Duchess of Cornwall” as well.
The Duchess of Cornwall being Prince Charles‘ wife, Camilla (formerly Parker-Bowles), who, as Charles’ ex-girlfriend turned mistress turned girlfriend turned second wife, knows a thing or two about being the subject of insults and unflattering commentary—none of which ceased even after she married the queen’s heir apparent.
So, you can add Camilla to the list of people who got lucky-ish to have dared to live a life on her terms before the age of social media. But she finds herself now in the internet age, hence Clarence House (Charles and Camilla’s official residence) contributing to the directive. Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, can sympathize.
As Prince Andrew‘s ex-wife, the duchess often known as Fergie has her own separate Twitter and Instagram accounts and—unlike anyone under the Clarence House, Kensington Palace or Buckingham Palace umbrellas—she manages them herself. Which is on the brave side, considering the sort of things that used to be written about her in actual newspapers, now come to roost in any comments section.
But her life experience has also made the Duchess of York a bit of an expert in this field, and she is aware of how history tends to repeat itself.
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“It’s time to confront head on the fact that much of social media has become a sewer,” Sarah Ferguson wrote last month in an essay for Hello! endorsing the #HelloToKindness campaign.
“I’m on Twitter and Instagram, and I’m grateful for the fact that they allow me to communicate directly with people who are interested, promote my charitable causes and let people read my own words rather than someone else’s slant on them. But the truth is, a lot about these sites terrifies me. I rarely if ever go ‘below the line’ on social media or news websites and read people’s comments. I know that a lot say nice things, but there’s a large minority who seem to think that all the normal rules of society don’t apply to the internet.”
She continued, invoking what’s been happening with Kate and Meghan, “Women, in particular, are constantly pitted against and compared with each other in a way that reminds me of how people tried to portray Diana and me all the time as rivals, which is something neither of us ever really felt.
“People feel licensed to say things online that they would never dream of saying to someone’s face, and that encourages others to pile in. It’s so ubiquitous that we’ve all become numb to what’s going on. There is good evidence that this online culture is having a detrimental impact on people’s mental health, particularly vulnerable young people.
“I believe that it’s time to take a stand,” Sarah continued. “This isn’t about freedom of speech. The truth is, it’s not acceptable to post abuse or threats on social media or news sites, and it’s not acceptable to harangue other users simply because they disagree with you. It’s not acceptable to pit women against one another all the time. It’s not acceptable to troll other people viciously online.”
Fergie and Diana’s relationship was complicated, to say the least, but the negativity that got in the way of the natural bond they felt as royal newcomers and endlessly scrutinized young women did often stem from whatever the media were saying about them at any given time. When one friend is concerned about the other either getting too much press and overshadowing her, or damaging her own image if the press lumps them in together, that’s not a foundation for a stable friendship.
Meghan and Kate—close in age, paragons of style and married to two royal brothers, one of whom will be king—proved the natural heirs to this timeworn story line, which is in perpetual existence to fulfill the neurotic need for drama to counter the generally fawning press the royals get (in the sense that every time they do anything, it’s news and it’s spectacular).
Ironically, people would still find plenty to pick at if they were joined at the hip, but the fact that Meghan and Kate don’t see each other a lot, and that Harry and Meghan are going to have their own household rather than a joint venture with Kate and William, has fueled speculation that a Meghan-rooted rift has developed between the two couples—one that started forming between Harry and William when Meghan first came into the picture.
“It’s a practical streamlining of communication and efficiency,” insisted etiquette expert Jo Bryant about the splitting of the households on a November episode of Yahoo’s The Royal Box. Added the Telegraph‘s Camilla Tominey, “They’re still very close as brothers. There’s no big severing here. It’s just the idea, I think, that the Sussexes need their own unit to look after them, rather than Harry kind of plus-one-ing with the other two.”
And Harry and Meghan are very much their own unit.
Despite the social media “sewer,” Meghan has still been heralded as a sparkling breath of fresh air for the dusty monarchy, and the most exciting person to join the ranks since Princess Diana. Nothing has to happen at an event, the Royal Box crew pointed out, if she or Harry is there. Rather, they are the event, and that’s reminiscent of the effect Harry’s late mum had on people who loved to soak up the details of everything she was doing.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge—who were the toast of the town when they got married and started having children—have since settled into a more reserved, albeit still glamorous, groove of behaving like a future king and queen, which leaves room for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to be the exciting royals on the block, roles they’ve played with ease.
Meanwhile, Kate and William have also been criticized for not being more public, and particularly for not making their three children more available to photographers, while simultaneously being applauded for being a dignified, refined and unobtrusive pair fit for the throne. They have, of course, wanted to make life as normal for Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis as is humanly possible, particularly before they have to have “the talk” (in this case about country, tradition and duty) with George.
And no matter how much of a fever pitch the Meghan vs. Kate chatter reaches, that won’t alter in the slightest how much glowing praise they receive every time they’re together in public, as they were Tuesday for the first time since Christmas at a celebration in honor of the 50th anniversary of Prince Charles’ investiture. In fact, the fewer appearances they make together, the more rapturously charmed observers will be when it happens.
So since Meghan and Harry are damned if they do and damned if they don’t (even their admirers can’t agree on just how much they should be breaking the royal mold, and how much reservation is too much reservation), they may as well do exactly as they please.