Meghan Markle with Prince Harry
Image: Commons Wikimedia

The Duchess of Sussex has criticised the "seemingly endless toxicity" of social media, revealing she was targeted with "bullying and abuse" while pregnant with Archie and Lilibet.

Meghan was the keynote speaker on a high-profile panel marking International Women's Day at the annual SXSW festival in Austin, Texas.

She said she now keeps her distance from such comments for her wellbeing.

Prince Harry was in the front row of the audience watching the event.

Meghan said people have "forgotten our humanity" in certain parts of the media and digital sphere.

"The bulk of the bullying and abuse that I was experiencing on social media and online was when I was pregnant with Archie and with Lili", she explained.

"You just think about that and really wrap your head around why people would be so hateful - it is not catty, it is cruel."

The event was titled Breaking Barriers, Shaping Narratives: How Women Lead On And Off The Screen.

The 42-year-old former Suits actress also discussed issues ranging from the importance of diverse representation to portrayals of motherhood in film and entertainment.

Meghan said she found it "disturbing" that women were "spewing" hatred at each other online, adding: "I cannot make sense of that."

"If you're reading something terrible about a woman, why are you sharing it with your friends?" she asked.

"If it was your friend, or your mum or your daughter, you wouldn't do it.

"I think that is the piece that is so lost right now (with) what is happening in the digital space and in certain sections of the media - we have forgotten about our humanity and that has got to change."

At fellow panellist Katie Couric's urging, Meghan also re-shared how a letter she sent aged 11 to consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble led to a sexist advert promoting dishwashing liquid being changed.

Meghan said that experience showed her the power of speaking up and advocacy. "Your voice is not small, it just needs to be heard," she told a live audience.

Actress Brooke Shields, also on the panel. joked: "This is one of the ways we're different, when I was 11 I was playing a prostitute," referring to her background as a child actor and role in 1978 film Pretty Baby.

Rare appearances

The SXSW keynote panel event was also simultaneously streamed on YouTube, with most of the comments about Meghan being overwhelmingly positive.

The Duke of Sussex and Meghan have come under heavy criticism, particularly in the UK tabloid press, after they stepped back from the Royal Family.

Scrutiny of the couple intensified following a revealing interview on Oprah and a Netflix documentary.

The couple's public appearances have been less frequent since they moved to California and set up the Archewell Foundation. Meghan was last in England in September 2022.

There has been significant online speculation about a possible return to the UK to mark the 10-year anniversary of the Invictus Games - set up in 2014 by Prince Harry.

Meghan's latest appearance comes during a difficult period for the Royal Family as the King undergoes cancer treatment and the Princess of Wales recovers from abdominal surgery in the UK.

They have been put further under the microscope by the appearance of Kate Middleton's maternal uncle, Gary Goldsmith on Celebrity Big Brother.

Goldsmith has criticised Meghan on the ITV reality show and reportedly claimed that Prince William has offered an olive branch to his brother.

On Friday evening, he became the first housemate evicted from Celebrity Big Brother on ITV.

Speaking after his eviction, Goldsmith backed the one-time Dragons' Den contestant Levi Roots to win, adding that his niece would "100%" support his choice.

"[Roots] is somebody who puts other people first and that's our Kate," he said.

Earlier, Prince Harry's memoir Spare was shortlisted for the British Book Awards in two categories.