A Royal Instagram Mystery
Two royal couples, two Instagram accounts, one conspiracy theory.
Of all the tricks humankind employs to concoct the illusion of security, the most vital to the British royal family is hierarchy.
Hierarchy is what makes an elder brother more important than a younger one, a newborn more powerful than his 33-year-old uncle. A minor tweak to the laws of succession requires the consent not only of British Parliament, but of 15 other nations.
While sovereignty operates under hierarchy, it survives by public support. What happens, then, when monarchical order is pitted against social popularity?
On Instagram: a mystery.
This is a tale of two social media accounts, both alike in dignity, yet cast as star-cross’d competitors on Instagram, where we lay our scene.
@KensingtonRoyal was established in January 2015. Crucial to our saga, it was a shared account for Prince William, his wife, Catherine (formerly known as Kate Middleton) and his younger brother Harry. (William and Harry are the only children of Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales; Charles is first in line for the British throne, making Prince William second in line.)
When the younger Prince Harry became engaged to the American actress Meghan Markle in 2017, @KensingtonRoyal began functioning as a shared account for the two couples. It remained as such through Harry and Meghan’s wedding in spring 2018 (when they were formally given the titles of Duke and Duchess of Sussex), and for several months beyond.
Until April 2, 2019.
That date marked the appearance of a newer, more sprightly Instagram account called @SussexRoyal. This was a new official handle for Prince Harry and Meghan alone.
It has served ever since as their base of social media operations, and as a channel for direct communication with the world. It was where, at the start of this year, Harry and Meghan posted their surprise announcement they intended to “step back” from the British royal family. It was where, in the wake of the hectic negotiations that followed, they posted a screenshotted statement from Harry’s grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, to show that she expressed support for their decision.
In the latest development, the couple will be required to relinquish use of the word “royal” in their branding, commercial and charitable activities, and presumably, Instagram handle; that change in status is scheduled to take effect on April 1.
But let us back up a year, to when one royal brand was cleaved into two. That’s when things got weird.
Two households, both alike in dignity
@SussexRoyal looked poised to surpass @kensingtonroyal in followers. instead, they grew in lock step.
From the outset, @SussexRoyal was runaway popular. It set a Guinness world record for reaching 1 million faster than any account in Instagram history — in 5 hours and 45 minutes. (Only Jennifer Aniston has improved on that time, when she created an Instagram account later in 2019.)
Tabloid writers and royal reporters began to forecast the moment that @SussexRoyal’s follower count would overtake @KensingtonRoyal’s, thus crowning Harry and Meghan the definitive winners of an unofficial couples’ popularity contest.
It seemed inevitable; already, when it came to Google search interest, Harry and Meghan towered over William and Kate. (From November 2017 until the end of January 2020, Harry-and-Meghan-related searches accounted for 83 percent of the world’s curiosity in the two couples.)
The Instagram eclipse would happen in April or perhaps May, with the birth of the couple’s first child, royal watchers speculated.
It happened in neither, it turned out. Nor in June. Nor July.
Every day, without exception, from April 2, 2019, until Jan. 21, 2020 — through Guinness world record growth, the birth of Harry and Meghan’s baby Archie, and the seismic rupture that was their public departure from royal life — the size of Harry and Meghan’s Instagram audience failed to exceed that of William and Kate’s.
Was it coincidence that Instagram popularity appeared to align so unwaveringly with monarchical hierarchy? Or was there invisible mischief afoot?
A conspiracy was at play, conspiracy-minded corners of the Internet murmured.
A cross section of social media analysts, researchers and product developers disagreed about the degree to which the British royal family’s two most prominent Instagram accounts invite suspicion.
Some felt the growth and engagement patterns between the accounts could be explained by the unknowable workings of Instagram, which regulates the spread of content with the invisible force of a deep ocean current. Others saw in the data a possible shadow campaign, perhaps intended to inflate the appearance of one couple’s popularity over the other.
Representatives for both royal houses denied strenuously any suggestion that their social media teams had manipulated follower numbers.
Here is what we know:
April 2019, the month @SussexRoyal announced itself on Instagram, marked eight years since the first royal wedding of this generation: that of the first brother Prince William, to Kate Middleton. In those eight years, a trio of births had knocked the second son, Prince Harry, down the ladder of succession to his current spot, sixth in line to the throne. But the public’s longstanding affection for Harry (as indicated in public polls) remained. It — combined with the sparkling addition of his new romantic partner — meant that, since their engagement, Harry and Meghan, whom the younger prince met in 2016, had been channeling public energy and enthusiasm like palms on a plasma ball.
To wit, the day before Meghan first appeared on @KensingtonRoyal in November 2017, the account gained 981 followers, bringing its audience to just under 2.27 million. The day Meghan’s engagement was announced (her debut appearance on the account), it gained 104,092.
It kept gaining, steadily and in occasional frenzied bursts. Over the three-day period that consisted of Meghan and Harry’s wedding weekend in May 2018, plus the Monday morning release of their nuptial portraits, @KensingtonRoyal acquired more than 1.5 million new followers. In the period after Meghan was effectively incorporated into @KensingtonRoyal, that account’s following more than tripled in size.
For the remainder of 2018, the two couples surfaced on their single account smiling radiantly — or, on the prescribed days, staring off in solemn remembrance — in an easy rhythm. The impression was of companions casually interspersed throughout one another’s lives, locked in a perpetual couple’s staycation behind the walls of their shared palace, with participants slipping out now and then to pursue their philanthropic passions.
In 2019, however, Harry and Meghan began a process of gradual separation.
They extricated themselves from their joint “royal household” arrangement with William and Kate, moving their administrative offices out of Kensington Palace, and hiring new staff. They formed a charitable foundation separate from the one William and Harry had founded in 2009, which had been the locus of both couples’ philanthropic efforts. And, most visibly, on April 2, they introduced a stand-alone Instagram account.
Though Meghan was by no means a global star before her marriage, she had maintained an active and successful personal Instagram account, its profile buoyed by her regular role on a moderately popular American cable legal drama. That account boasted around 2 million followers before its deletion following her engagement (not far from the approximately 2.27 million followers @KensingtonRoyal had when the engagement was announced).
From its very first post, Harry and Meghan’s new Sussex account was distinct from @KensingtonRoyal — and seemed unmistakably the work of an Instagram veteran. It established a signature color palette (royal blue) and typography (a hybrid of caps-locked roman and lowercase italics). These kinds of personalized elements were absent from @KensingtonRoyal.
Over the next several months, the two accounts would diverge even further in style and tone.
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny
The Top 10 Most-Liked Posts from @KensingtonRoyal and @SussexRoyaL
According to data provided by CrowdTangle, a social media analytics tool that, like Instagram, is owned by Facebook, nine of the 10 most-liked posts ever shared by either @KensingtonRoyal or @SussexRoyal showcase some combination of Harry and Meghan (and/or their son). The single outlier is an image of William and Kate’s two eldest children taken on Princess Charlotte’s first day of school in 2019. (It came in eighth.)
Data generated by the media monitoring software Cision, which tracks online media mentions, found that, from the date of the announcement of Harry and Meghan’s engagement in November 2017 to January 2020, Harry and Meghan received vastly more global online attention than did William and Kate. (Recall, too: They crushed them in Google searches.)
(William and/or Kate did receive more online attention than Harry and/or Meghan on a handful of dates, such as: the day Kate wore a green gown to the BAFTA awards ceremony, out of step with the event’s unofficial all-black dress code to express solidarity with victims of sexual misconduct; the period immediately before and after the birth of William and Kate’s third child; and their daughter’s first day of school.)
Thus it is perhaps not surprising that, from the date of the @SussexRoyal debut until Harry and Meghan’s bombshell announcement this past January, @SussexRoyal’s Meghan-and-Harry-centric posts received more total likes than @KensingtonRoyal posts centered on Kate and William. According to CrowdTangle data, the Sussexes came out around 13.5 million likes ahead.
Of course, on Instagram, likes are only one measure of engagement. Another is comments.
Harry and Meghan won that by an even bigger margin: In the same time frame, their account received more than double the number of comments that @KensingtonRoyal did, despite @KensingtonRoyal laying claim, perpetually, to hundreds of thousands more followers.
Likes and comments are a quick way to eyeball an account’s success. Divide that combined figure by an account’s number of followers, and you can calculate an interaction rate. A high interaction rate suggests a highly engaged following, which suggests high popularity — or at least a lot of interest.
@SussexRoyal’s interaction rate was nearly twice that of @KensingtonRoyal’s. Its audience was rapt, active and, within a month and a half of the account’s creation, numbered more than 8 million users — a figure it had taken @KensingtonRoyal more than four years to amass.
With good reason, perhaps. Unlike @KensingtonRoyal, @SussexRoyal established early that it operated largely independently of the British press. While @KensingtonRoyal released coveted family images in concert with members of the media, @SussexRoyal surprised its followers with images royal reporters could not get. From time to time, it even broke news.
Yet it seemed, from the outside, that no matter how many followers @SussexRoyal gained, it could never quite catch up; rather, it appeared eternally on the cusp of doing so.
On the date @SussexRoyal was created, @KensingtonRoyal had an audience of about 7.3 million. But the older account’s prolonged dominance cannot be attributed to its head start. Accounts created later often overtake popular “partners.”
For instance, Michelle Obama surpassed her husband’s Instagram account within months of him leaving office. Kaia Gerber, 18, overtook her supermodel mother, Cindy Crawford, within months of her own runway debut.
Furthermore, follower growth for one account does not necessarily portend a comparable increase for a similar one.
Few accounts are as closely related as those of Jonathan and Drew Scott, the identical twin brothers who jointly star in their own home real estate television franchise, “The Property Brothers.”
CrowdTangle data indicates that, after years of virtually complete growth overlap, one Property Brother’s account began blazing an upward trail at the end of last year. Its associated Property Brother (Jonathan) had recently revealed he was dating the actress Zooey Deschanel.
All are punish’d
Instagram popularity is complex.
Let’s examine these two posts from a Friday in late may 2019.
It is a quirk of digital popularity that social media accounts with large followings can reasonably expect to lose a very small percentage of followers immediately after sharing new content. The appearance of said new content, regardless of format or platform, will inevitably lead some portion of followers to conclude they don’t care about it. It will inspire decisive action — to unfollow.
It is therefore not unusual that, when @SussexRoyal posts a photo of Prince Harry, a typically well-performing subject — on horseback at about 2:40 p.m., London time, on a Friday — it will lead to a brief exodus of followers. In this case, of something like 420 accounts in the first hour, according to timestamped data.
A successful post will quickly make up this difference as new users discover it and elect to follow the account. In this case, the horse post resulted in a net gain of about 1,200 new followers in the first five hours, plus over 420,000 likes.
It is less explicable that when, for instance, @KensingtonRoyal shares a low-resolution image of a painted portrait of the late Queen Victoria — who is neither a common nor immediately recognizable subject for the account — at 6:47 a.m. the same day, it should immediately gain over 730 followers in the first hour.
It is even less explicable that it should experience a net gain of roughly 3,500 new followers in the first five hours, especially considering it garnered only around 283,000 likes total.
That means that although the somewhat obscure portrait of Queen Victoria was apparently enchanting enough to draw droves of new followers to @KensingtonRoyal, it received far fewer likes than a photo of Harry on @SussexRoyal — a photo that, paradoxically, despite receiving hundreds of thousands more likes than Queen Victoria, enticed far fewer people to follow the account.
Before Harry and Meghan’s account existed, @KensingtonRoyal might gain something like 1,000 followers on an average good (but not astronomically good) day. But between Jan. 1 and March 31 of last year, its following shrank by nearly 10,000 accounts.
The creation of @SussexRoyal seemed to reinvigorate it — and then some.
On May 12, the day @SussexRoyal posted a photo of Meghan’s hands holding newborn Archie’s cute tiny baby feet, the account of Archie’s aunt and uncle, @KensingtonRoyal, gained more than 42,000 followers. This despite the fact @KensingtonRoyal had posted no content, as well as the fact that the Sussex post was in honor of a holiday few in Britain were observing: U.S. Mother’s Day.
For comparison, the day @KensingtonRoyal shared its hugely popular — for it — first day of school post, which featured Charlotte and George hugging adorably in impeccably clean uniforms, it gained slightly over 40,000 followers. (@SussexRoyal, which shared no post that day, gained about 10,400.)
May 21 marked the first time @KensingtonRoyal’s growth rate began regularly outpacing @SussexRoyal’s. The differences were slight — often hundredths of one percent — but they appeared to manifest irrespective of the content posted.
On back-to-back dates when neither account posted anything, Kate and William’s account growth rate might inexplicably increase from 0.06 to 0.11 percent. Or, on a date when @SussexRoyal content received roughly 10 times the number of likes and comments as @KensingtonRoyal content, Kensington’s growth rate might still outpace it by 0.01 percent. From May 21 on, CrowdTangle data showed the accounts’ followings growing in lock step — with @KensingtonRoyal permanently ahead.
Matt Navarra, a British social media consultant, was unconvinced that either account exhibited suspicious follower activity. “I don’t think there’s anything in it,” he said — but added, “I wouldn’t put my life on it.”
Samuel Woolley, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin whose research focuses on social media political propaganda, said that while manipulation was impossible to confirm without more account information than is publicly available, the CrowdTangle data is “pretty damning if we are looking for inauthentic activity.”
Others consulted were in agreement that several scenarios could explain the follower gap:
Despite @KensingtonRoyal’s prior lackluster performance and oddly low engagement rate relative to @SussexRoyal, it maintained its follower advantage with no manipulation. More real people simply elected to follow William and Kate over Harry and Meghan.
@KensingtonRoyal was given better placement on Instagram’s “Who To Follow” list, a curated selection of accounts presented to new users — a variable known to drive tremendous numbers to specific accounts with virtually no effort from account owners.
@KensingtonRoyal was the beneficiary of a concentrated fan-driven campaign to keep its numbers high. (No evidence of such an effort could be found.)
@SussexRoyal’s initial follower takeoff was supplemented by bot followers, and its growth slowed when no new bots were bought to replace them. (This would not seem to explain Kensington’s sudden and sustained increase in popularity relative to Sussex — unless, perhaps, Kensington began acquiring followers at the same time as Sussex, and for several months after.)
@KensingtonRoyal was receiving follower boosts in the form of bots.
A plague o’ both your houses
Top Five Famous Followers who follow either kensington or Sussex but not the other
Several researchers observed that some inauthentic activity is bound to plague any prominent social media account: Following popular users is one tactic bots use to mimic humans.
While no one consulted knew of a reliable way to keep numbers artificially low by suppressing genuine follower activity, all agreed that it’s easy to make them appear artificially high with bots. As part of a recent NATO study, researchers acquired more than 3,500 comments, 25,000 likes and 5,000 followers, all for roughly $330.
It is also possible to use bots to inflate social media accounts even if you are not the owner. Anyone can buy bots on behalf of anyone else, or send them to an account with which they have no affiliation.
But inauthentic activity is somewhat unverifiable. One of the biggest challenges of unearthing fake followers, for the layman, is that many of the tools for doing so have disappeared.
Alex Taub, a founder and the former C.E.O. of the social media analytics company SocialRank, described the current social media landscape as “like a black box.”
It stems from the spring of 2018, when TechCrunch reported that Instagram had abruptly limited the amount of user data developers outside the company could access. (Mark Zuckerberg was about to testify before Congress regarding the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which a political consulting firm collected and sold the personal data of nonconsenting Facebook users.)
The move impaired the ability of third parties to perform widespread data analysis. In so doing, it granted all Facebook and Instagram users more privacy — including those accounts operating as bots.
“Overnight, almost all audience tools were killed,” Mr. Taub said of the Cambridge Analytica fallout. “It’s very hard to see who follows who, on the granular level, unless you manually go into the account and click on followers.”
Mr. Taub sold his analytics company in December — a development he said allows him to “talk more freely” without worry of “Facebook or Instagram taking away” access to the interface that, in its original form, enabled independent developers to collect user profile data for audience analysis en masse. (A spokesperson for Facebook said: “We revoke access for third parties when they abuse our terms of service.”)
Mr. Taub said: “If it was 2016 and you said, ‘Hey, Alex, I want to analyze the Duchess in Essex and all this whatever,’ it would take probably a day or two, and I could come back to you and show ‘These are the followers they share in common. This is the percentage of fake followers this one has. This is the breakdown of locations. This is the amount of fake followers in a location.’”
Now, the only people with access to such information work inside Instagram.
Mr. Woolley, the professor at the University of Texas at Austin, echoed Mr. Taub’s sentiments. “It’s so frustrating to not have better access to the data” of public figures, he said. “Especially in an era when social media, particularly Twitter, is the favorite mode of communication for some politicians. It’s not just Trump. It’s people like Modi in India and Bolsonaro in Brazil.”
“What it comes down to is manipulation of public opinion,” Mr. Woolley said.
Yes, but back to Kate Middleton.
Jay Owens, a social media researcher in London who evaluated the CrowdTangle data, said she was “certain to a 95 percent confidence interval” that there was no mass follower purchase on behalf of @KensingtonRoyal since April 2019 — in part because a graph of its follower counts did not feature hallmarks of bot acquisition. (Those hallmarks include large, inexplicable surges of thousands of followers, and plateaus of growth that suddenly drop off.)
Mr. Woolley was less deterred by the lack of obvious indicators of bot activity.
“Most people leveraging fake followers these days — especially at the behest of well-resourced groups or individuals — are being very careful to avoid suspicion, detection and deletion,” he said.
The new goal is not sudden popularity, but mathematical untraceability: In a sophisticated campaign, fake followers are more likely to be added more frequently, in smaller quantities.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve seen accounts gain 50,000 followers overnight,” said Mr. Woolley. “That doesn’t really happen anymore unless it’s organic.”
To him, @SussexRoyal’s initial explosive growth seemed genuine. But the fact that @KensingtonRoyal’s follower count grew by large numbers on days of popular @SussexRoyal posts — the day @SussexRoyal shared the shot of their baby son’s feet, for instance — made him suspicious of the older account.
Then there was the matter of the fans. Anna Gebremedhin, a data analyst specializing in Instagram commerce, found that, when William, Kate, Meghan and Harry shared one Instagram handle, their respective Instagram fan accounts grew in ways that largely mirrored @KensingtonRoyal. But after @SussexRoyal was created, that pattern collapsed.
“Major fan Instagram accounts for William and Kate, which previously corresponded to the popularity of their official page, did not see growth aligned with their official account,” Ms. Gebremedhin said. Followings of Meghan and Harry fan accounts rose in proportion to @SussexRoyal’s following, but @KensingtonRoyal’s numbers grew faster than William and Kate’s fan pages.
Ms. Gebremedhin called this “a deviation from historical growth.”
On Jan. 21, 2020, there was a breakthrough:@SussexRoyal, at last, surpassed @KensingtonRoyal’s follower lead — two weeks after the Sussexes’ semi-departure from the royal family.
These violent delights have violent ends
The DIGITAL mystery remains.
Direct comparison of the accounts is hindered by a final peculiar fact.
@SussexRoyal is classified as an Instagram “creator account” — a free designation that grants owners (and, to a more limited extent, other users) the ability to view some account metrics.
@KensingtonRoyal, on the other hand, is designated a “personal account” — a setting a celebrity digital media strategist who was granted anonymity by The Times to protect client accounts called “bizarre.” Such accounts do not have access to their own detailed data profiles.
“Why would the most prominent figures in the world, basically — or among the most popular and prominent — not have that? With dedicated social media teams, it doesn’t make sense,” the strategist said.
The mystery remains; the parties of suspicion, neither condemned nor excus’d.
Of course, any bots present could have come from anywhere. They could have been purchased by someone in another country, with no connection to the royal family.
We cannot even assume that bots added to one account were intended to make that account look good, or enforce a hierarchy of any kind. Perhaps, an account was receiving bot infusions, only so that its growth would fall off a cliff if (when?) they stopped being added.
“If you really want to be in a position of power and just mess with people’s social media presence, you spend a while intentionally inflating another’s presence, and being a kind of puppet master,” said David Berkowitz, a marketing consultant for technology companies. “Then, you just start taking this stuff away.”
Over the last two months, with media glare bright upon the Sussexes, @KensingtonRoyal continued its usual drip of tasteful, anodyne photos of William and Kate.
Yet on Feb. 17, it regained its follower lead, propelling itself past @SussexRoyal. As our tale draws to a close, the accounts are neck and neck.