China and Russia ‘spreading slurs against Princess of Wales’

The Princess of Wales
The Princess has continued to be attacked online even after her announcement she is being treated for cancer - Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images

China, Russia and Iran are fuelling disinformation about the Princess of Wales to destabilise the nation, Whitehall sources believe.

Senior Government figures fear that hostile states are behind the spread of wild conspiracy theories and online rumours surrounding the Princess’s health.

After the Princess announced her cancer diagnosis on Friday evening, Rishi Sunak led the condemnation of social media trolls for targeting her online in recent weeks.

But his intervention did not deter further frenzied commentary, with a disinformation chief saying on Sunday that the Princess had been “revictimised” by trolls criticising her for not publicly revealing her diagnosis sooner.

On Sunday, it emerged that there was growing concern in Whitehall that hostile state actors could be involved in whipping up the frenzied social media attacks on the Princess.

A government source told The Telegraph: “Part of the modus operandi of hostile states is to destabilise things – whether that is undermining the legitimacy of our elections or other institutions.”

It comes as Downing Street is preparing to announce fresh sanctions on China as soon as Monday, after a wave of state-backed cyber attacks against a group of senior MPs and peers.

The Prince and Princess with China's Xi Jinping on a state visit in 2015
The Prince and Princess with China's Xi Jinping on a state visit in 2015. Beijing has been accused of interference in Britain's democracy - Heathcliff O'Malley

The threat of Chinese state interference in British democracy will be raised in Parliament on Monday by Oliver Dowden, the deputy prime minister.

He is expected to say China was behind a hack on the Electoral Commission last year, during which the personal details of 40 million voters were accessed.

Meanwhile, Alison Giles, parliament’s director of security will brief a group of MPs on the heightened threats they face as a result of their hawkish stance on China.

The first UK sanctions against Chinese government officials were announced in 2021 for “systematic” human rights violations against Uyghurs and other minority groups.

Last month, Britain issued a wave of sanctions against Chinese companies accused of aiding Russia’s war in Ukraine.

A taskforce launched by the Government last year aimed at protecting the democratic integrity of the UK from threats of foreign interference is currently looking at a range of ways to tackle the spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories online.

The Defending Democracy Taskforce, which is chaired by Tom Tugendhat, the security minister, and includes members of the security services as well as Home Office and science department officials, focuses on the role of rogue state actors in spreading disinformation.

“Countering this is right at the heart of the work of the taskforce,” a Government source said.

One area under consideration is boosting the role of fact-checking organisations, but officials are wary that this could lead to a new set of controversies. BBC Verify recently came under fire for using an anti-Israel journalist bankrolled by Iran as a key source in its reporting on the Gaza conflict.

Another option being studied by the taskforce is whether social media companies can contain the speed at which disinformation is shared on their platforms.

Flood of conspiracy theories

Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, said the frenzied social media attacks had “done damage” to the Royal family.

“When you’ve got a young lady, the Princess of Wales, who has suffered a medical emergency, you see people flooding in with conspiracy theories, you see them being amplified on social media platforms and pushed to millions and millions of people,” he told the BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg.

“What really, I think, annoyed me was seeing that she was then being revictimised by being blamed for not having come out immediately.

“I think it’s the inhumanity of the way that social media has made us behave, forcing people to talk about things that can be very deeply personal.

“And also seeing of course the impact of that on our society, how quickly it was picked up by millions of people, and how much it’s done damage to the Royal family themselves.”

Palace sources say the current challenges facing the Royal family, in which both the King and Princess are off public duty as they undergo treatment for cancer, are a “temporary blip” rather than a “seismic change”.

They added that the King was “very positive” and was “building towards” a return to public work in the summer, health permitting.

On Sunday morning, churches around Britain said prayers for the Princess and her family, asking for God to grant them “faith, hope, and knowledge of your love”.

Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor, said hearing the Princess talk about her cancer diagnosis “cut me to the quick” as it reminded him of his own late brother’s experience of the disease.

The Chancellor said that he was “touched” by the Princess’s announcement on Friday and particularly her experience explaining her diagnosis to her three young children.

The Princess said in her Friday statement that her news came as a “huge shock”, adding: “William and I have been doing everything we can to process and manage this privately for the sake of our young family.”

She added: “We hope that you will understand that, as a family, we now need some time, space and privacy while I complete my treatment.”

The Prince of Wales is taking three weeks off to spend the Easter holidays with his wife and three children. The Princess will not resume public duties until she has clearance from her medical team.

Peter Phillips, the King’s nephew, praised the Princess as “remarkable” and said that she and Prince William had “got it right” in balancing their public life and family life.

The Queen is the most senior member of the Royal family out on public duty this week, with three engagements.

On Thursday, she will undertake her most visible role yet representing the King, distributing Maundy money at the Royal Maundy service at Worcester Cathedral.

The King will deliver an Easter message at the service which was recorded before news of the Princess’s treatment for cancer was made public and is not expected to mention the Royal family’s personal situation.

The Princess Royal and Duke of Edinburgh will be undertaking their normal engagements before the family breaks for Easter.

The social media furore around the Princess’s whereabouts, well-being and domestic life had reached a fever pitch following the release and subsequent apology for editing a Mothering Sunday picture of herself and her three children.

Following the Princess’ heartfelt video message about her cancer diagnosis, some public figures have apologised for their earlier remarks while other social media users doubled down on unfounded accusations of fakery.

Palace sources have spoken of hopes that the social media giants might use the furore to tighten up systems that currently allow defamatory lies and conspiracy theories to spread unchecked.

Concerns have been raised in the past about suspicious “bot-like” Twitter accounts and handles linked to Russian conspiracy theorists that have been “obsessively” tweeting about the Duchess of Sussex.

An analysis of accounts that together created a “Meghan Markle” Twitter community found around 1,000 “highly-connected” ones that had tweeted more than two and half million times over a six-month period in 2018-19.

One account with the second highest number of pro-Meghan followers, which also tweeted about US politics from a pro-Democratic perspective, appeared to indicate “bot-like activity” while the fourth most shared account frequently tweeted from Russia Today and questioned Sergei Skripal’s near-fatal Novichok poisoning in Salisbury in 2018.

The research, published in 2019 by 89up, the consultancy firm which carried out an analysis of Facebook data for a culture and media select committee report, found an “unusually high reach” for the narrow interconnected group of Meghan fans.

Both the Prince of Wales and his brother, the Duke of Sussex, have urged tech companies to do more to rein in the spread of disinformation and hate speech online.

The Duke of Sussex and Meghan
The Duke of Sussex has spoken out about online hate with his wife, Meghan, a particular target - Getty Images AsiaPac

In 2018, Prince William made an unprecedented intervention to accuse the world’s technology giants of failing to protect children from the hate and bile of social media.

The Prince, who spent months working with web companies to try to tackle cyberbullying, condemned the “defensive” attitude of social media firms in refusing to accept their role in the spread of hate speech, fake news and the torment of young people in their own homes.

He said the firms were failing to take seriously the real fears of parents whose children faced “supercharged” bullying online, in a situation already “leaving some children to take their own lives when they felt it was inescapable”.

In 2021, the Duke of Sussex helped launch a report aimed at tackling the “disinformation crisis”, which he says “is a global humanitarian issue”.

The Duke, who has previously voiced his concerns about an “avalanche of misinformation” caused by digital media, was involved in a six-month study on the state of the media in the US conducted by the Aspen Institute’s new Commission on Information Disorder.

The group issued 15 recommendations “for leaders to consider adopting across the public, private, and non-profit sectors”.

According to a statement from the Duke and Duchess’ Archewell Foundation, the work was driven by a need to find solutions to the rapid rise of misinformation in recent years that has “harmed communities, and impacted our democracies”.

State interference

Lord Cameron, the Foreign Secretary, has previously warned that Britain will not tolerate the escalation of Iran’s “malign” activities in the Middle East or on UK soil.

He described Hamas, the Houthis and Hezbollah as “proxies” for Iran who were contributing to an “extremely high” level of “danger and insecurity” around the world.

A government spokesman said: “The Government has regular and ongoing dialogue with social media companies to discuss a range of issues including disinformation. We are also working across government to ensure we are ready to respond to threats, including through our Defending Democracy Taskforce.

“When fully implemented, under the Online Safety Act, platforms will be required to swiftly remove illegal misinformation and disinformation as soon as they become aware of it.”