Over the past decade, a handful of debates have loomed large over British public discourse, creating unbridgeable chasms that threaten the foundation of a country that once prided itself on its ability for polite conversation. The most obvious is, of course, Brexit. But if you look in the right places, the Meghan Markle divide is not too far from the EU referendum one in terms of fervour and tactics. Heightened by cleverly worded hashtags, the discussion around Meghan has become a social media frenzy fed by super fans and super trolls, and the announcement made yesterday by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex that they will be stepping down from their senior role is guaranteed to see it reach new heights. But this increasingly popular pastime has real-world implications — not just for Meghan herself but potentially for wider society too.
They call it the "Markle Hustle." Meghan herself is referred to as "Medusa," "the Grifter," or "Meagain." She and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex have been blessed with the couple name "Hazard and Migraine." On Twitter, her facial expressions are meticulously dissected, her personal style is ripped to shreds, and the "she was never pregnant" conspiracy theory refuses to die.
Head to Instagram and it's more of the same. They say she is destroying the royal family; that her marriage to Harry was all part of a cunning plan. Not only are there entire accounts dedicated to uncovering the "scamming Duchess", as one user so pleasantly puts it, but there's a bundle of negativity and sarcasm under the #meghanmarkle hashtag. Tumblr exhibits the same.
Back in August, Sky News detailed a number of Meghan-targeted Facebook pages with negative and racist comments. On message boards 4chan and 8chan, they found hate speech deemed "too offensive to publish."
On message boards 4chan and 8chan, they found hate speech deemed "too offensive to publish"
Even YouTube hasn't escaped the fury surrounding Meghan's regal standing. One channel boasts 116,000 subscribers. Hosted by an unnerving robotic voiceover, it claims to publish news. But this 'news' heavily relies on royal gossip, and it regularly paints Meghan in a bad light.
Other channels, with thousands of followers and hundreds of comments, are created by people with notable anti-Meghan Twitter accounts. "Slamming" Meghan is one female YouTuber's "favourite subject in the whole wide world," as she describes in one video. "When you get to my age and you're still breathing," she adds, "you can say what the hell you want."
This multi-platform operation appears to be tied to one ideology, and it goes by the name of #Megxit. Its followers' main goal? Get the Duchess out of the royal family.
"Criticism of members of the British royal family is not new and not unusual," says royal expert Marlene Eilers Koenig. She explains how the sons of King George III received "unpleasant" media coverage, adding: "To be fair, these men had mistresses, illegitimate children, spendthrifts." The "scandals" of other male royals resulted in similar treatment.
Women didn't escape it either. Queen Victoria received bad press "early in her reign and certainly when she hid herself for years after Albert's death," notes Koenig. And Princess Margaret "suffered from an over-attentive press." But none, including Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, seem to have been treated in the same way as Meghan.
The 'war' between Meghan and Kate fans is plastered across social media
Koenig believes "the coverage is inherently racist and anti-American ... The writers try to find fault with nearly everything — and they make up so much ... [Meghan] wears an off-the-shoulder dress and that violates protocol (it doesn't) but Catherine wears one: 'Oh, she looks lovely. She's perfect.'"
The 'war' between Meghan and Kate fans is plastered across social media. But even though both hail from non-aristocratic backgrounds, it is Meghan who is vilified again and again.
Since the beginning of 2019, digital consumer intelligence company Brandwatch tracked 69,500 mentions of #Megxit across public social media posts, forums, blogs, and news sites. Content manager Gemma Joyce says the hashtag reached its peak in September when Katie Hopkins shared a clip from her infamous Meghan-bashing 60 Minutes Australia interview. The likes of #charlatanduchess, #duchessofdeception, and #sodoffsussexes routinely appear alongside #Megxit.
"My first encounter with Meghan trolls was on Instagram, around the royal wedding in 2018," says Maria H. Weber, co-founder of Meghanpedia, a site that aims to fact-check information relating to the Duchess. "In my opinion," she says, "they are driven by racism, xenophobia, and, to some extent, classism."
News outlets often spreads stories conjured up by trolls with little to no evidence
Weber believes they "follow a clear script in which the operating theme is that Meghan does not belong in the British royal family due to her skin colour, and so they characterise everything she does as not 'royal' — as if to justify the former assertion." She describes most trolls as "so-called MAGAs from the U.S. and Brexiteers from the UK; mostly conservative, middle-aged white women."
The media has a part to play too. (The Sussexes are suing British tabloids, don't forget.) News outlets often spreads stories conjured up by trolls with little to no evidence. They may not agree with the conspiracy theorists trying to prove Meghan's bump was fake, but the publicising of said theory only feeds the frenzy. The same goes for the idea that baby number two is on the way, that Meghan has sub-par parenting skills, or that she deliberately snared Harry.
Weber believes the "vicious media-troll cycle" started with the media. But will it end there? Some outlets seem to have toned things down. The trolls, however, are still going strong.
But even the trolls themselves can't escape conspiracy theories. In the past year, the notion that Meghan-related accounts are part of some wider political strategy has been suggested. It's known as disinformation and it goes a little like this: hone in on a topic, build a following, push them to an extreme for political gain.
The approach — designed to sow online and real-life discord that leads to a major divide in a country's population — has been used to manipulate public opinion in the run-up to elections and, notably, the Brexit referendum. Essentially, the more we fight amongst ourselves, the more fragile we, as a nation, potentially become.
Russia is commonly pinpointed as the culprit of online disinformation, hence why you may have noticed a great deal of chatter about Russian bots and trolls. But Russia using Meghan accounts to divide the UK? Now, that's an unusual idea. Darren Linvill, associate professor of communication at Clemson University and disinformation expert, says that, other than certain politicians, he's never seen Russian-connected accounts "go after a particular public person in this specific way."
Recent research has found that a small group of accounts — just 20 — were behind around 70% of anti-Meghan tweets
Recent research has found that a small group of accounts — just 20 — were behind around 70% of anti-Meghan tweets, per CNN. Advocacy group Hope Not Hate examined more than 5,000 tweets posted between January and February 2019. The #Megxit hashtag reared its ugly head once again; this time appearing in user bios alongside the likes of #Brexit and #MAGA. However, while accounts seemed to have been created with the aim of taking down Meghan, there was no evidence to suggest they were part of a bigger "far-right campaign."
The divide is also clear on Instagram. Although much harder to analyse, some anti-Meghan comments have an orchestrated feel. Just one example: a post from Tatler with Meghan as the cover saw numerous comments sarcastically asking the same thing: "Are you OK, Meghan?"
When it comes to the online trolls, the same usernames pop up over and over again. Several state they're Russian or write in Russian language. (Likely a coincidence, rather than evidence of a state-organised campaign.) And there's plenty of frog emojis which can be regarded as a symbol of hate speech linked to trolling and the alt-right, depending on the context.
Yet Meghan fan accounts have too exhibited some interesting traits. March saw the publication of an article from the Telegraph headlined: "'Megbot' army linked to Russian conspiracy theories tweeting 'obsessive' support for Duchess."
Consultancy company 89up found around 1,000 Meghan Twitter supporters had an unusually high reach. When evidence of partial automation and political content was uncovered, claims that pro-Meghan bots were trying to sway public opinion ensued.
"Most accounts are real people and, because of the anonymity of the platforms, people show their true colours"
When speaking about the online rhetoric surrounding Meghan, one needs to be careful when using the word "bot" to describe the accounts in question. "A bot can only do what it's programmed to do," Linvill tells me, "whereas a troll obviously takes a lot more effort, a lot more human interaction." Although some accounts seem to dance the line between bot and troll, the most with a variety of different activity are "very likely" trolls, Linvill says.
"Most accounts are real people and, because of the anonymity of the platforms, people show their true colours," Linvill says. I reached out to individuals with multiple anti-Meghan accounts but heard nothing back, bar one who said they would "not be partaking in any media relations at present."
So, where do the social media platforms themselves, and the people who operate them, come into this debate?
Social media companies "built the system that enables" everything from standard trolling to disinformation tactics, notes Linvill. "Their funding model central to them making money is individuals' ability to quickly and free of charge create anonymous accounts that don't necessarily need to be tied to a real human being. As long as that is the case, we're going to have problems with disinformation."
Weber, co-founder of Meghanpedia, believes there is "room for improvement by way of more consistent enforcement of the rules." She adds, "there will not be meaningful behaviour modification if there is no real possibility of lasting or permanent expulsion."
The royal family is treading uncharted territory in the wake of the trolling
A company spokesperson for Facebook (which also owns Instagram) told Bustle: “We are committed to leading the industry in the fight against online bullying and invest heavily in tools and technologies to help prevent it. We recently rolled out new features such as ‘Restrict’ and ‘Comment Warning’ which are designed to reduce bullying on Instagram and give users more control of their experience.”
Instagram's community guidelines state that "stronger conversation" is generally allowed around "people who are featured in the news or have a large public audience," but abuse, bullying, or harassment is not tolerated. A permanent ban may ensue if guidelines are repeatedly broken, the guidelines explains.
A statement from Twitter read: "The health of the public conversation is our number one priority. We take robust enforcement action when behaviour violates our abusive behaviour and hateful conduct policies. Accounts whose primary purpose is inciting harm towards others on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease have no place on our service." Between January and June 2019, the platform took action against 584,429 accounts under the hateful conduct policy.
The most worrying thing, though, is this: If the #Megxit strategy is to divide and conquer, it may be having an effect. With the Brexit conundrum entering its fourth year, never has the UK felt so dangerously polarised. The royal family, too, is treading uncharted territory in the wake of the trolling.
"British royals have lived by 'never complain, never explain,' but in Meghan's case, this is not working," Koenig says. In March 2019, the royal family issued social media guidelines for the first time, threatening to block or notify police of any defamatory, abusive, or discriminatory comments.
Unlike others in the family who prefer to remain shtum, Meghan and Harry have been open about the impact of online and print abuse
Unlike others in the family who prefer to remain shtum, Meghan and Harry have been open about the impact of online and print abuse. October saw a statement from the Duke of Sussex on the "ruthless campaign" from tabloid newspapers. Announcing that Meghan had filed a lawsuit against the publisher of the Mail on Sunday, he wrote:
"I’ve seen what happens when someone I love is commoditised to the point that they are no longer treated or seen as a real person. I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces."
That same month, Megan took part in an interview with ITV. Visibly emotional, Meghan spoke about the "very real" emotional impact the scrutiny was having on her thanked the interviewer for bothering to ask if she was OK.
In conjunction with their statement issued yesterday, Meghan and Harry stated on their website that "[f]ollowing their decision to adjust their working model in 2020, it is appropriate to amend their media relations policy to reflect their new roles. Their sincere hope is that this change in media policy will enhance access and give The Duke and Duchess the ability to share information more freely with members of the public."
Behind the scenes, the trolls still lurk. They, unlike the media, feel legally untouchable. But only drastic action is likely to end their hateful presence and manipulation. Perhaps Meghan and Harry's decision to step back from royal life is exactly that.