Princess Diana’s death was one of the first conspiracy theories on the internet, and people still believe it

Kraig Hall, 20, does not remember Princess Diana. She wasn’t old enough to watch her funeral on television on September 6, 1997. To watch the procession from Kensington Palace to Westminster Abbey, or her two sons, Prince William and Prince Harry following them on foot. Despite all this, Hall firmly believes that he knows one thing about the Princess of Wales: that she was murdered.

Hall first heard of the Princess of Wales when she was 13 years old. Sitting around the table, her family spoke of her in a different way from the rest of the British monarchy. “Every member of my family, or anyone I spoke to, said the same thing; that Diana was the best,” she says. She “she looked almost like a goddess.” It wasn’t until Hall started studying Diana at school that he was hooked: “Then I got pretty obsessed, I’ll be honest.”

Hall is among the growing number of Gen Zs who are drawn to the memory of Princess Diana. His TikTok account, which shares monarchy-related conspiracy theories among other more lighthearted videos, has grown to more than 130,000 followers.

You’re not alone: ​​Type “Princess Diana” on TikTok and terms like “Princess Diana is still alive” and “The Princess Diana Conspiracy” are offered as the most popular search areas. “I think for my generation, we all agree that her death was highly suspicious,” says Hall.

Princess Diana died in Paris at the age of 36 (Photo: John Stillwell/PA)

In the early hours of Sunday, August 31, 1997, Princess Diana and her partner Dodi Al-Fayed were traveling in a Mercedes from the Ritz hotel in Paris when they were involved in an accident. Its driver, Henri Paul, was driving fast through an underground tunnel, in what appeared to be an attempt to escape the photographers. None of the passengers were wearing seat belts.

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Despite numerous investigations concluding this was an accident, as recently as 2013 38 per cent of people in the UK still thought Diana’s death was not an accident in a YouGov poll, and another 21 percent said they “didn’t know.” .

Since then, conspiracy theorists have nailed the blame on everyone from the security services, with the help of His Royal Highness Prince Philip, to the IRA. Now, 25 years after his death, a new Channel 4 documentary tries to debunk these theories once and for all.

In particular, the show explores how the early days of the Internet – the booming chat rooms and forums in the pre-millennium period – flourished on these unfounded speculations. These digital death conspiracy theories then fed back into the main discussion.

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Theories that first emerged in the months after Princess Diana’s death spread like wildfire in the comments section of CNN’s website and in Yahoo chat rooms, says Fred Henson, assistant producer for the show. series that spent hours tracking files. One forum in particular that added fuel to the fire, Henson says, was Usenet, a forum that predated the World Wide Web.

“The person who set up Usenet and ran it had a very particular worldview,” says Henson. In the 1990s, the network had a reputation for conspiracies, with users frequently discussing theories about the British military and cover-ups in Northern Ireland and the Middle East. But then in the UK the forum became increasingly popular with women. “The housewives were prominent posters. I had a feeling that for them, it was more that they had stumbled upon this group and their discussion about Diana, and then they went down the rabbit hole. The site had a lot about deep state conspiracies and assassinations and spies and things like that,” adds Henson.

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In fact, these theories became so prevalent that an investigation, Operation Paget, was launched to directly confront and forensically dismantle them. “The main purpose of Operation Paget,” reads the 832-page report released after the investigation, “was to assess any credible evidence supporting the charge of conspiracy to murder, not to re-investigate the issues analyzed by the French investigation. ”. .

Former Metropolitan Police Detective Dave Douglas was one of the lead investigators on Paget. He retraced the steps of the French investigation, looking for clues and clues; interview Prince Charles and gain full access to MI6 files. The conclusion of the investigation? According to French police, the crash was simply a tragic accident.

Douglas saysYo he wasn’t sure about appearing in the new documentary: “So I thought, better to be involved instead of having an open field where people can [make] stupid accusations again. I thought, better to tell people what we believe to be the truth, and then leave it up to them.”

Lady Diana Spencer reveals her engagement ring (Photo by Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)

Operation Paget systematically took on hundreds of theories and took them apart. This is in stark contrast to the approach of most law enforcement agencies following other global events fueling their share of conspiracy theories online. For example, after September 11, 2001.

“It was very clear, from the beginning, that this was all about transparency,” says Douglas. “If you’re dealing with conspiracy allegations, you have to light everything up, you can’t take things away, because then it just becomes a conspiracy.” But equally, this kind of research had never happened before.

After much discussion, the Metropolitan Police decided that making Operation Paget as public as possible was the right thing to do. “We wanted the public to know as much as we did; just lay it all out,” says Douglas. “There are some people who just want to believe the conspiracy allegations. You can give them as much data as you want, but people prefer to believe. It is more interesting; It’s not that boring.”

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But why, nearly two decades later, does this fascination with conspiracy theories surrounding his death persist online? The Covid-19 pandemic could be partly to blame, says Karen Douglas, a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent. “[Conspiracy theories] attract more people in times of crisis. This is possibly one of the reasons why conspiracy theories seem more prominent since the start of the pandemic.

And then sometimes an event can be so catastrophic for society that a mundane explanation just doesn’t make any sense, doesn’t feel like an explanation. enough for the breakup. “Official explanations can seem quite mundane and conspiracy theories offer an explanation that is proportional to how the event feels,” explains Douglas.

Not to mention that Princess Diana herself remains inescapable: her inspiring image Fashion Photo shoots; your photos posted on the Internet; His children continue to pay tribute to his 36 years of work. “There is no modern equivalent of a celebrity on that scale; not even the Kardashians, who we now think of as huge,” says documentary production assistant Fred Hinston.

“The fact that she died in such a spectacular but also mundane way made it difficult to close. I think that is why it is so hard for us to accept her death and that is why the conspiracies continue, ”she adds.