OPINION: New analysis from Bot Sentinel reveals harassment and disinformation about Harry and Meghan have been amplified to mainstream by royal reporters and pundits.
Prince Harry joined WIRED magazine’s virtual conference, RE:WIRED, on Tuesday to discuss “what is the real cost of a lie on the internet?” It’s a cost he and his wife, Meghan Markle, The Duchess of Sussex, are intimately familiar with as the targets of a coordinated, online hate campaign as reported by Twitter analytics service Bot Sentinel last month.
“I lost my mother to this self-manufactured rabidness, and obviously, I’m determined not to lose the mother of my children to the same thing,” said Harry.
On the same day of Harry’s remarks, new analysis from Bot Sentinel reveals that the harassment and disinformation from a core group of accounts has been amplified and carried to the mainstream by royal reporters and commentators reaching millions more users than the 17 million originally estimated.
Bot Sentinel tracked the flow of disinformation from its origin as a conspiracy theory from a known single-purpose hate account dedicated to tweeting negative content about Harry and Meghan. The theory was immediately amplified on social media by a royal commentator, who subsequently repeated it to an even larger audience during a television interview. Ninety percent of the journalists and royal commentators profiled in the report follow and interact with at least one hate account. Every interaction gives credence to their conspiracy theories, drives more followers to their accounts, and increases the probability that Twitter will promote their tweets.
Prince Harry touched on Bot Sentinel’s finding during his speech at the WIRED virtual conference, saying “Perhaps the most troubling part of this, is the number of British journalists interacting with and amplifying the hate and the lies. But, they regurgitate these lies as truth.”
He added, “In fact, the term — and maybe people know this maybe they don’t — but the term Megxit, was or is a misogynistic term. And, it was created by a troll amplified by royal correspondents, and it grew and grew and grew onto mainstream media, but it began with a troll.”
Launched in 2018 as a crowdfunded web service, Bot Sentinel is designed to help fight disinformation and targeted harassment on Twitter. The company’s latest tool, the Hate Tracker, features an updated algorithm to ensure that the platform can identify all forms of harassment. To his critics, who claim that he is censoring free speech, Bot Sentinel CEO, Christopher Bouzy, insists that “free speech doesn’t give anyone the right to target, defame, or dox someone they don’t like.”
Bouzy explained to theGrio his evolving vision for the company: “I developed Bot Sentinel to help users identify toxic accounts that target the most vulnerable people online. However, we launched the Hate Tracker to spotlight single-purpose hate accounts targeting high-profile people, especially women and women of color. People need to understand it’s not just random angry people voicing their opinions. These single-purpose hate accounts are coordinated, and some are even profiting from their hatred and harassment.”
In the past two weeks, 47% of the accounts responsible for the majority of the hateful attacks against the Sussexes have either been incapacitated or restricted, including nine accounts which were permanently suspended by Twitter. In an Oct. 27 statement to the Washington Post, Twitter said they were “actively investigating” and would take action on any account violating Twitter rules but saw no evidence of “widespread coordination, the use of multiple accounts by single people, or other platform manipulation tactics.”
Bouzy told theGrio that the scope of Bot Sentinel’s investigation expanded when they observed “an unusual number of hate accounts interacting with journalists who primarily cover the Royal Family.” Further research showed that some journalists were following the “more active and well-known hate accounts.” By definition, these are accounts dedicated to tweeting defamatory content about Harry and Meghan. What value could royal commentator Richard Fitzwilliams find in following one account that espouses conspiracy theories that claim Meghan was trafficked by Jeffrey Epstein, much less six?
The most egregious case was royal biographer, Angela Levin, who follows 19 hate accounts including one who threatened Meghan’s life. She also interacted regularly with two notorious anti-Sussex accounts, Murky Meg and Yankeewally, who were permanently banned from Twitter for violating the platform’s online harassment policy.
In the past, journalists who were caught engaging with these types of toxic accounts feigned ignorance, or like Robert Jobson, royal editor for the Evening Standard, they go with the old standby excuse of everyone who has ever forgotten to use their burner account — they claim they were hacked. The message that Jobson retweeted has since been deleted and the Banana Scribbler account appears to be deactivated.
By contrast, Levin chooses to hide in plain sight with over 100 interactions with accounts monitored by the Hate Tracker. Interactions range from retweets, quoted tweets, or replies, but the report doesn’t evaluate intent. Bouzy notes that the majority of royal reporters and commentators’ interactions with hate accounts “were inconsequential.”
Is it reasonable to expect a journalist with tens of thousands of followers to know the tweet history of every Twitter user before they reply? Where’s the line between engaging with followers to answer questions, acknowledging readers who compliment your work, and amplifying hate?
That line should probably start with not promoting tweets that fuel conspiracy theories that Meghan faked her pregnancy. With altered pictures and the caption, “Please feel free to catch the earliest available flight and sod off back to your handler and Archie — ‘the child that you pretend lives with you’ and of course the moonbump,” known pregnancy-truther accounts Wally and CeeBee assert that the Harry and Meghan’s children, Archie and Lili, aren’t Harry and Meghan’s biological children and in fact that Archie doesn’t live with them.
Levin quote tweeted the claims, but surely, she doesn’t believe them herself?
The morning of Sunday, June 6, 2021, Levin tweeted that Meghan was due to have her daughter two days later, on what would have been Prince Philip’s 100th birthday. Hours later, Harry and Meghan announced that their daughter had been born the previous Friday and the family was settled safely at home. It might be fair to question how reliable Levin’s sources are for royal births, generally.
The last example is fairly innocuous, but it highlights one of the challenges of royal reporting in a 24/7 online news cycle. Omid Scobie, royal editor for Harper’s Bazaar, describes the environment as one in which “commentary is regularly treated as fact rather than opinion, and anonymously sourced reporting can quickly become the gospel version of an event or someone’s narrative, even if its origins are not necessarily reliable. As a result, we’ve seen gossip originating from hateful conspiracy accounts on social media make its way into mainstream news and publications.”
Mainstream and social media are locked in a symbiotic, if somewhat toxic, relationship where one feeds the other often with misleading or hateful messaging designed to grow the audiences of those elevated as experts. Kate Starbird is an associate professor at the University of Washington, HCDE and co-founder of the Center for an Informed Public. Like Prince Harry, she also serves on the Aspen Institute Commission on Information Disorder. Starbird explains the dynamic as “participatory disinformation” where “online disinformation (and propaganda more broadly) act as both a top-down and bottom-up phenomenon.”
She developed the framework while researching the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, but an adapted version can be applied to the royal ecosystem.
From the top, royal media pundits (i.e. reporters, commentators, social media influencers, and palace courtiers) repeatedly spread the message that Meghan was unworthy — that she didn’t deserve to be a member of the Royal Family and had taken the place of a more deserving English Rose. This set the frame of illegitimacy. Online crowds reinforced this narrative and the moniker ‘Charlatan Duchess’ was born. In a Fast Company interview, Harry described the false narrative as “the mothership for all of the harassment.” He added, “it wouldn’t have even begun had our story just been told truthfully.”
Instead, social media influencers like Murky Meg generated false stories like the one below claiming that Prince Harry and Meghan paid $1.5 million to be on the cover of the TIME 100 Most Influential People issue. Tweeted on Sept. 17, within five hours, Levin amplified it with a sly quote tweet pondering whether the rumor could be true. Three days later, during an interview on Israeli news channel i24, she repeated the allegation that “other people believe” the couple had paid to be on the cover.
The cherry on top came when Levin accused TIME magazine owner, Marc Benioff, of placing Harry on the cover as a favor — $1.5 million is one expensive favor — in his role as CEO at BetterUp, the performance development firm where Harry is employed as chief impact officer.
Benioff is, in fact, not the CEO of BetterUp though he owns an investment stake in the company. Likewise, he doesn’t have editorial or operational decision-making authority at TIME.
The same pattern was repeated when Levin quote tweeted another piece of misinformation from Murky Meg on July 14. She alleged that the Oprah With Meghan and Harry interview, which was nominated for a 2021 Emmy Award, should have been ineligible for this year’s awards because the air date was outside the nomination window. The eligibility window for the Primetime Emmys was June 1, 2020 – May 31, 2021. The Oprah interview aired March 7 well before the deadline.
Levin later relayed this disinformation in a video interview for UK radio station TalkRadio TV. She also argued that the Oprah interview was miscategorized as nonfiction. Are we sure she knows the difference?
Professor Starbird cautions that “with social media, this ‘participatory disinformation’ feedback loop between elites and audiences can be extremely tight, with audiences echoing elites and elites echoing audiences.” In this case, Levin intimates that she “found out” insider knowledge of the awards process, giving no indication that her source was a now-banned Twitter troll. Scobie noted the rise in this type of reporting in recent years, particularly in coverage of Harry and Meghan.
“We have witnessed tweets from troll accounts on Twitter fashioned into anonymous source quotes in news articles about the Sussexes, false information from hateful Tumblr accounts become stories on the pages of a biography on Meghan, and libelous conspiracy theories from YouTube channels get repeated on mainstream TV by a purported ‘expert,’” he told theGrio.
Whether it’s disinformation about a fake pregnancy or paying to be honored by a magazine, these seemingly disparate stories all reinforce the same narrative of illegitimacy. Harry and Meghan are portrayed as defrauding the public or a higher institution in order to gain access to benefits they don’t deserve. Anger builds as online crowds, egged on by royal media pundits, become frustrated that the couple is allowed to get away with this deceit.
That growing sense of grievance translates into a call to act — if the palace won’t punish the Sussexes, the audience will. When mobilizing online shifts to physical confrontation offline, the participatory disinformation frame finally breaks.
In 2019, Harry called out the “human cost to this relentless propaganda” when he announced that they were suing the Mail on Sunday. We now know the impact that these attacks had on their mental health, and that in Meghan’s case, it nearly cost her her life. They’ve also highlighted the heightened security risk that they face as a direct result, but the ripple effect of a lie can have unintended consequences that reach far beyond the Sussexes.
There’s Brynn Gingras who is regularly harassed online by Levin’s favored pregnancy-truthers. Last year, Gingras shared a touching account of her pregnancy loss and how she’d found comfort in Meghan’s op-ed The Losses We Share. Now, hate accounts are demanding that she admit that her son is a secret stand-in for Archie.
Author Corinne Averiss was caught in the group’s cross-hairs when trolls decided Meghan had plagiarized her book, The Boy on the Bench, and were prepared to defend her honor whether she wanted them to or not. Averiss eventually had to tweet a message exonerating Meghan from a crime that she’d never accused her of.
Just as Harry feared, Meghan has become commoditized to the point that she’s no longer seen as a real person. As quickly as hate accounts are suspended on Twitter, they pop back up on YouTube where they can monetize disinformation for fun and profit. For Meghan, the cost of a lie on the internet has been her humanity and she’s still paying.
R.S. Locke is a multimedia journalist and entrepreneur. Staying positive but petty is a personal creed that underscores her writing and her life. She writes about the world’s longest-running reality series and family business – the British Royal Family.
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