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

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

Hall first heard about the Princess of Wales when he was 13 years old. Sat around the dinner table, his family would talk about her in a different way from the rest of the British monarchy. “Every single member of my family, or anyone who I spoke to, said the same thing; that Diana was the best,” he says. “She was seen almost like a goddess.” It wasn’t until Hall began studying Diana at school that he became hooked: “Then I became quite obsessed, I’ll be honest.”

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

He isn’t alone: ​​type “Princess Diana” into TikTok and terms such as “Princess Diana still alive” and “Princess Diana conspiracy” are offered up as the most popular search areas. “I think for my generation, we all agree that her death was very 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 a crash. Their driver, Henri Paul, was driving fast through an underground tunnel, in what appeared to be an attempt to escape from photographers. None of the passengers were wearing seatbelts.

Despite numerous investigations that concluded 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, with a further 21 per cent saying they ‘didn’t know’ .

Conspiracy theorists have grasped at straws ever since to blame everyone from security services, with the help of HRH Prince Philip, to the IRA. Now, 25 years on from her death, a new Channel 4 documentary attempts to put these theories to bed once and for all.

In particular, the show explores how the early internet – chatrooms and forums that were booming in the lead up to the millennium – flourished with these unfounded speculations. These digital death conspiracy theories were then fed back into the mainstream discussion.

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The early theories that emerged in the following months Princess Diana’s death spread like wildfire on the comment section of the CNN website and Yahoo chat rooms, says Fred Henson, assistant producer on the series who spent hours trawling archives. One forum in particular that added fuel to the fire, says Henson, 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 and users frequently discussed theories about the British army and cover-ups in Northern Ireland and the Middle East. But then in the UK, the forum became increasingly popular with women. “Housewives were prominent posters. I got the sense that for them, it was more that they had stumbled across this group and its discussion about Diana, and then they kind of went down the rabbit hole. The site had a lot about deep state conspiracy stuff, assassinations and spies and things like that,” Henson adds.

In fact, these theories became so prevalent that an investigation, Operation Paget, was set up to directly take them on and forensically dismantle them. “The primary purpose of Operation Paget,” reads the 832-page report published after the investigation, “was to assess any credible evidence that supported the allegation of conspiracy to murder, not to re-investigate the issues looked at by the French investigation” .

Former Met Police Detective Dave Douglas was one of the lead investigators in Paget. He retraced the steps of the French inquiry, searching for clues and leads; interviewing Prince Charles as well as gaining full access to MI6 files. The conclusion of the investigation? In agreement with the French police, the crash was, simply, a tragic accident.

Douglas tellsI he wasn’t sure about appearing in the new documentary: “Then I thought, better to be involved rather than having an open field where people can [make] Stupid allegations again. I thought, better to tell the people what we think is the truth, and then leave it 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 pulled them apart. This is in marked contrast to the approach of most law-enforcement agencies after other global events that fuel their share of online conspiracy theories. For example after September 11 in 2001.

“It was very clear, from the very beginning, that this whole thing was about transparency,” says Douglas. “If you’re dealing with conspiracy allegations, you have to shine a bright light on everything, you can’t take things away, because then it just becomes a conspiracy.” But equally, this type of investigation 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; to just put it all out there,” says Douglas. “There are some people who just want to believe in conspiracy allegations. You can give them as many facts as you want but people prefer to believe. It’s more interesting; it’s not as boring.”

But why, almost two decades later, does this fascination with conspiracy theories around her death persist online? The Covid-19 pandemic could be partly to blame, says Karen Douglas, professor of social psychology at the University of Kent. “[Conspiracy theories] appeal to people more in times of crisis. This is possibly one reason why conspiracy theories seem more prominent since the onset of the pandemic.”

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

Not to mention that Princess Diana herself is still inescapable: her image inspiring vogue photo shoots; her pictures plastered across the internet; her sons still paying tribute to her 36 years of work. “There’s no modern equivalent of a celebrity of that scale; not even the Kardashians, who we think of now as huge,” says Fred Hinston, assistant documentary producer.

“The fact that she died in such a spectacular but also mundane way made closure difficult. I think that’s why we find her death so hard to accept and why conspiracies continue,” he adds.