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Experts say the public is right to feel uneasy about a visibly manipulated Royal Family portrait

By Megan DeLaire

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    TORONTO (CTV Network) — It should have reassured the public that she was all right, but the release by the Royal Family of a photo featuring the Princess of Wales and her children has done the opposite this week.

The Mother’s Day photo became the subject of intense public speculation after several media outlets that published the image on Sunday retracted it later in the day over concerns about digital manipulation.

After all, the retractions came following weeks of gossip on social media about Catherine’s whereabouts and well-being after a two-week hospitalization in January for abdominal surgery. She hadn’t been seen publicly since Christmas Day.

While the changes to the photo appear relatively innocuous — an inconsistency in the alignment of Princess Charlotte’s left sleeve, around Catherine’s jacket zipper and Prince Louis’ jumper — experts say members of the public are right to feel uneasy about the episode.

“It’s kind of evoking all of the digital paranoia that comes across in these strange times when anything can be photoshopped,” Jeffrey Dvorkin, an expert in media ethics at the University of Toronto, told in a phone interview on Monday.

In a post on social media, Catherine later explained that “like many amateur photographers, I do occasionally experiment with editing.”

“I wanted to express my apologies for any confusion the family photograph we shared yesterday caused,” the post said.

While Dvorkin believes she did the right thing by admitting she altered the photo, he said the whole chapter leaves the public feeling more suspicious, at a time when trust in digital media is already low.

“The downside of her being so candid is that the public now says, ‘OK, if this isn’t true, what else are they not telling us? What else is not true that they’re trying to pass off as the truth’?”

The Princess of Wales is certainly not the first person to tweak or air brush a family photo. Commercial photographers, celebrities and regular social media users have been altering photos for decades to make them more aesthetically pleasing.

“I think anybody who’s posted a profile picture using a filter regularly engages in some sort of manipulation of representation of self,” Brett Caraway, an expert in social media reaction and online conspiracies at the University of Toronto, told in a phone interview on Monday.

But the rub here is that Kate is a public figure operating within an institution that appears to be heavily invested in controlling narratives about its members.

“I think that’s what people are pausing on is: why was there an edit done? Was it just to make the portrait a little bit more aesthetically pleasing? Or was it to potentially change a narrative that has been circulating about her health?” Caraway said. “And that’s a legitimate question.”

Just about anyone can use photo-editing tools and generative AI to create altered, misleading or even completely fabricated images and use them to influence others — and anyone who consumes online media is an easy target for misinformation and disinformation.

“The world that we’re in today is incredibly mediated,” Caraway said. “Our understanding of reality is mediated by the screen constantly. Everything that we know about the world around us, unless it’s in our immediate vicinity, comes through the internet. And so making sure that there’s a fidelity between the representation and the underlying reality is incredibly important.”

Institutions and leaders — including the Royal Family and its members — owe it to the public to be transparent about the images they use to promote themselves, Dvorkin said, or else risk damaging the trust of the public.

“It causes us all to be cynical and skeptical … from the idea that there’s no one out there that we can trust. That’s the worst aspect of what’s going on,” Dvorkin said. “It raises doubts in the minds of the public.”

As for the journalists and media organizations that cover the Royal Family, Richard Berthelsen, royal commentator for CTV News, said Buckingham Palace will need to work to keep their trust as well.

“What the palace puts out has to have a degree of credibility for the media to be able to accept other things that they say, so that’s going to be an issue going forward,” Berthelsen told CTV News Channel on Monday.

“They’re going to have to be more careful. They’re going to have to work more closely on that front. They may have to invite the media, in some cases, to do a photograph.”

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