The Princess of Wales controversy has only gotten worse

The public absence of Catherine, Princess of Wales, has grown from a niche royal watcher concern to an international punchline in a matter of weeks.

While Kensington Palace said her January abdominal surgery was planned and indicated she would be out of the public eye through March, several unusual details -- grainy photos, an altered image, vague medical information, irregular updates from the British royal family -- have kept the public guessing.

That's never a good thing.

Catherine's so-called disappearance has led TikTok and X users to swan dive into bizarre conspiracy theories and jokes so thickly intertextual it makes one wonder if social media really does give us brain worms.

Droves of amateur detectives have crafted timelines and deep dives into the princess' movements over the last few months, combining real concern with outlandish conspiracy. Regular people moonlighting as photo forensics specialists have suggested recent images of Kate are fabricated, spinning theories on where she actually is and who they think is trying to cover up the "truth."

And yes, there are a lot of jokes. At first, it was just the typical guffaws that arise whenever something socially noteworthy gets passed around the online comedy circuit: Maybe Kate got a Brazilian butt lift! Maybe she got terrible bangs and is hiding away until they grow out! Maybe she's getting in shape after a long MLB offseason!

Then, after a Mother's Day photo of the princess and her three children was believed to have been altered -- and subsequently pulled by news agencies -- things started to get more serious and more unhinged. Typically complimentary British media outlets began to ask more pointed questions. American TV shows openly made fun of what was quickly becoming a royal mess, even trotting out theories that had previously been the exclusive fodder of gossip enthusiasts -- more on that in a bit.

Oh, and Kate still hasn't been seen in public since December.

The uproar, the theories, the analyses, the jokes and, yes, the serious concern -- they all show the multitude of ways people interact with and view the royal family.

'Everyone loves a mystery'

It's not hard to understand why people are so invested in this particular piece of drama. After all, it's called "palace intrigue" for a reason. Across social media and on message boards -- and indeed, even before the internet, royal-watchers have gathered to discuss who's doing what, who's on the outs, and whose secrets are the juiciest.

"They lead these unattainable, unrelatable lives, and yet I've been aware of them my entire life," said Susan Graves. The 40-year-old moved to the US nearly 20 years ago from Birmingham, UK, and keeps up with royal news on sites like Reddit, where the r/RoyalsGossip subreddit has more than 44,000 subscribers.

"I am old enough to remember when Princess Diana died, and all of the scandal and sadness that happened after that," she told CNN. "And now, with everything happening with Prince Harry and his wife, and the seedier things happening with Prince Andrew, and the King being ill. It's always something."

Carly Wainsworth, a 28-year-old American who also follows royal gossip on Reddit and elsewhere, told CNN it all kind of feels like solving a mystery.

"It feels like fiction, but it's not," she said. "It's just real enough to be real, if that makes sense. Then you throw in stuff like a Photoshopped picture, and you can't help but be intrigued at what's going on."

She says even friends who usually don't care about the royal family at all are invested in the drama with the princess.

"Everyone loves a mystery. A lot of these people think it's fun to look for clues, to guess at what's happening behind the scenes. It's the same casual stuff people do when they gossip about people they actually know."

Both Graves and Wainsworth said shows like "The Crown" and controversies surrounding various members of the royal family -- from the media treatment of Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, and the fallout of Harry's memoir "Spare," to more serious subjects like allegations surrounding King Charles' brother Prince Andrew and even enduring interest in the life and death of Princess Diana -- have influenced the way people see the monarchy.

"I don't know if it's because I'm American or what, but I just assume they're always hiding something," Wainsworth said. "Not [the royal family] specifically, just anyone in that kind of position."

It all sounds very serious, but a majority of Kate truthers are, to borrow from our British friends, just taking the piss.

The social media platform X now supports groups known as "communities," and one called "where TF is Kate Middleton" has attracted 4,400 members ready to cram on their sleuthing hats.

"Kate is missing and twitter is on the case! join us, indulge your guilty pleasure," its description reads. "friends don't let friends spiral down the royal rabbit hole alone."

Oh, and what a royal rabbit hole it is: Videos and posts in the group outline stories that could trump any fictional mystery-thriller. On the other hand, there are also Photoshop jobs of Kate holding hands with perpetual celebrity boyfriend Pete Davidson and jokes that Kate may be taking a spin on the reality show "The Masked Singer."

People don't know what to believe

It's one thing for at-home gossip lovers to dive into royal conspiracy theories, but as Catherine's absence from the public eye wears on, entertainment and media outlets are getting more bold in their speculation. On a recent episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, host Stephen Colbert even openly entertained rumors about Kate and William's personal lives.

In a single line, he also summed up how so many interested parties feel about the controversy: Concern for Kate as an individual, but a guilty hunger for more details.

"My heart goes out to Kate. Now let's dish the hot goss!"

The Daily Show mocked the Mother's Day photo controversy with a faux London correspondent reading out a list of things that "were also Kate's fault," including "colonization and the whole Prince Andrew thing."

Even the Dublin Airport got a shot in, tweeting an ironic image of an obviously Photoshopped Cillian Murphy from their "social media intern Kate."

More dire than the growing transatlantic comedy routine is the apparent dissolution of trust between some media outlets and the royal family. After Catherine apologized for the doctored Mother's Day image, the global director of one of the world's biggest news and photo agencies said Kensington Palace, which released the photo, was no longer considered a "trusted source."

"Like with anything, when you're let down by a source, the bar is raised and we've got major issues internally," AFP head Phil Chetwynd told the BBC in a radio interview.

The British Press Photographers' Association released a statement urging Kensington Palace "to make the original images available for inspection so that we can assess what has been done" and "make sure that it doesn't happen again."

Members of the British media are also beginning to openly question the official narrative of Kate's absence. "Feeding frenzy over Kate proves the royals MUST be more transparent," reads a recent headline from The Daily Mail, an outlet that is generally sympathetic in its royal news coverage.

The royal response hasn't calmed things

Throughout the whole controversy, official information from Kensington Palace, which is the London residence and office of Prince William and Kate, has been uneven. Royal experts have noted that the palace typically doesn't respond to rumors about the royal family, yet has made the rare move of responding to unconfirmed reports of Kate's condition.

At the same time, the palace hasn't responded to calls for an unedited version of the Mother's Day photo, or provided more information on Kate's whereabouts.

Mark Borkowski, a London-based public relations and crisis communications expert, told People that the royal family's long-standing culture of silence is not doing them any favors when it comes to quelling conspiracies about Kate's absence.

"The difficulty now is because there is so little information about what's happening to Kate, if they were going to project things are all normal in this way -- with a photo that is now deemed to be fake -- it is pretty damning about the floundering and the poor decision making that's going on," Borkowski said.

While some voices have called for speculators to give Kate and the royal family some privacy, and others have suggested completely reasonable explanations for Kate's disappearance, the fact remains: For one reason or another, people care about the royals. And, as national figureheads, it is part of their duty to be cared about.

"In a constitutional monarchy where kings and queens wield little actual, but plenty of soft power, visibility is everything," Politico UK deputy editor Rosa Prince wrote for CNN. "They may not be able to pass laws, negotiate treaties or order troops into battle, but the British royals can open supermarkets, attend premieres and visit the sick. Without that, like Barbie, what were they made for?"