After more than six weeks, hundreds of hours of questioning and testimony, and breathless commentary from observers, the trial of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard is about to conclude.
The last six weeks has been an unprecedented cultural spectacle, featuring an array of memes, punchlines, derision, obsessive analysis and outright hatred. The vast, vast majority of this content has come at the expense of Heard, who has become the internet’s favorite villain for the sin of discussing physical and emotional abuse in a 2018 Washington Post op-ed that specifically did not name Depp.
But the case is no longer merely about Depp’s claim that this op-ed defamed him, nor the counterclaim from Heard that Depp (via his legal team) tried to censor her and spread false allegations. It has instead become a litigation of what defines a “real” abuser in a violent, toxic relationship — and the toughest examination has fallen on Heard, dissecting her words, tone and body language to conclude that women lie and abuse, too.
It’s not surprising that men’s rights advocates, anti-feminist voices and conservative commentators framed the trial as a referendum on male victimization and the apparent harms of “believing women.” But that cynical context has been overtaken, and laundered clean, by a mainstream content machine that has encouraged every social media creative on the planet to try and make entertainment (and a buck) out of the conflict itself.
You can find endless videos of commentators laughing at clips of Heard’s graphic testimony, calling it the “worst performance” of her career. There are compilations on YouTube and TikTok dissecting her most emotional, fragile-seeming moments. Online forums popular with young men are rife with misogynistic insults about Heard and “women like her.” And broader trends highlight how the discourse is stacked, too: The hashtag #JusticeForJohnnyDepp has nearly 10 billion views on TikTok, while hashtags in support of Heard have less than 40 million.
After six weeks, what we’re left with is a trial that can no longer tell us anything useful about the nuances of partner violence, or why victims can feel compelled to stay in a relationship despite feeling such intense hatred for the other. There is nothing to glean about how an ugly lawsuit can sharpen that hatred, or how it re-traumatizes people who struggled to process what happened in the first place. And the legal matter of libel has taken a back seat, to say the least.
Instead, what we have is the clearest, most damning indictment of a content cycle that has grown dangerously toxic over the last decade. Anything that goes viral can be weaponized to craft a disingenuous and wide-reaching social campaign that leverages earnest support to gain power — and it’s this factor that makes the Depp-Heard trial feel eerily similar to digital campaigns around Gamergate, QAnon and the unhinged Disney “Groomer” conspiracy.
Amid all this pro-Depp campaigning, it’s almost as if everybody forgot that, in the actor’s U.K. libel case against a tabloid that deemed him a “wife-beater,” the British High Court found the majority of Heard’s assertions to be “substantially true.” That’s an inconvenient fact for a whole cadre of content creators who have woven a narrative that portrays Heard as guilty, and cherry-picks all kinds of evidence to support that conclusion. This ecosystem consists of everyone from random criminal defense lawyers to World of Warcraft players, failed singer-songwriters, anti-woke nerd-culture fans and a literal 15-year-old who told Vice that he pivoted to making Depp trial content because “Depp is innocent” and Heard “is a turd.” Researchers have even found an army of bots are spreading pro-Depp talking points.
Perhaps more concerning is the appeal of the trial to right-wing ideologues, and how easily anti-Heard talking points work with “anti-woke” and conservative talking points about the Culture War®. Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire has spent nearly $50,000 promoting anti-Heard ads on Instagram and Facebook. Like hyenas and vultures descending on a sun-ripened carcass, these forces have come together to feed on toxic trial gossip, acting like their analysis is in the public service when it’s really just a lot of noisy agitation.
One example is Minnesota lawyer Nick Rekieta, who has 460,000 followers on YouTube and has gained major traffic in the last year via his commentary around the Kyle Rittenhouse trial in November and the ongoing Depp trial. Despite being a knowledgeable attorney who drops real insights into legal standards, protocols and trial missteps, Rekieta’s analysis is rife with anti-Heard bluster. “She wanted to defame Johnny Depp. That’s, of course, the rub. That’s the main inference that everyone should draw,” he declares in a May 28th livestream.
Elsewhere, he platforms an article from the right-wing disinformation rag PJ Media as the “most important” and “most correct” reporting about the trial. (One analytical highlight from the piece: “The media is determined to help [Heard] look as victimy as possible.”) He also recently joined some special friends to spice up his Heard commentary: Carl Benjamin, the Gamergate conspiracist and anti-feminist commentator who has been booted off Twitter and YouTube for hate speech, as well as Chrissie Mayr, the comedian and podcaster who has championed far-right voices like Tim Pool, disgraced political operative Roger Stone and Proud Boy founder Gavin McInnes.
Those who have dedicated their lives and careers to understanding domestic violence and abusive relationships, meanwhile, are left on the sidelines wondering where it all went wrong. It’s a nightmare scenario for domestic violence survivors and advocates, who worry that the extreme tone of the Depp-Heard discourse is a big step backward, especially given that women remain disproportionate victims of partner abuse. “In the commentary, it’s almost as if people are forgetting that this is real life, that this is not a show that we’re all watching,” Laura Palumbo, communications director at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, told USA Today.
A main concern is the level of bias that’s escalated in recent weeks, with more and more one-sided rhetoric from people who are claiming to give objective analysis. Experts on domestic abuse now worry that the case has perpetuated the myth of the “perfect victim,” given that Heard has been brutally criticized for inconsistent testimony and not showing enough emotion. Margo Lindauer, clinical professor at Northeastern’s School of Law, notes that the public’s obsession over the weaknesses in Heard’s case, rather than Depp’s, is a sign of the bias at play. “I think people are so quick to disbelieve women, and to not want to believe,” Lindauer told News@Northeastern. “It’s weird that there’s just one singular narrative. [Heard’s] life has been derailed, too, in all of the same ways.”
Palumbo was similarly critical, noting that some observers seem to take satisfaction in believing that Depp was right to attack Heard, because she was the abuser in their relationship. “My perception of the public dismissal of Amber Heard has not been that folks are saying that she didn’t experience those abuses, but that folks are no longer sure that she didn’t deserve to experience those abuses, which is a big problem,” she argued.
Equally problematic for the future is the fact that the Depp case, regardless of outcome, will empower abusers with money and resources to threaten their victims with libel suits, noted Christine M. Scartz, the director of the family justice clinic at the University of Georgia’s School of Law. The widespread public attention and major anti-Heard talking points are a potential playbook for others in positions of power, Scartz told PBS. “I promise you that in the demographic I work with, there are abusers out there right now telling victims, ‘I’m going to pull a Depp on you. If you disclose I will sue you,’” she said. “It’s a power and control threat that now has a name attached to it.”
Naturally, some actual experts who have been involved in the case are seeing mass harassment, such as court psychologist Dawn Hughes, who testified that Heard had PTSD from multiple instances of abuse. It’s why sexual violence researchers like Nicole Bedera say that sexism is playing a huge role in the discourse around the trial; as Claudine Mangen, scholar and expert on gender inequalities, said on Twitter: “They’re gaslighting experts.”
After the dissolution of their marriage, Depp allegedly told a friend that Heard was a “gold-digging, low-level, dime–a-dozen, mushy, pointless, dangling overused flappy fish market” who should prepare for “global humiliation.” In that sense, Depp has already won, and won big — the verdict in the public sphere will persist regardless of what the jury decides. And no matter what, this is a lose-lose for Heard, who becomes the latest symbol of the kinds of harassment victims face when they decide to speak out.
“The harassment and the humiliation, the campaign against me that’s echoed every single day on social media, and now in front of cameras in the showroom — every single day I have to relive the trauma,” Heard said in court on Friday. “Perhaps it’s easy to forget I’m a human being.”
It is true that individuals may forget — but it’s social systems that oppress, and Heard’s experience is the consequence of a content economy that rose to profit off her suffering and schadenfreude. It was just too easy to call her a liar, even though we know that false allegations of domestic violence are exceedingly rare. It triggered our worst impulses in the age of Extremely Online content, and the conclusion is unnerving as we gaze upon the horizon of socio-political rhetoric online.
It might’ve been alright if the Depp-Heard trial was just a spectacle. But it’s not — it’s a turning point for the narratives around masculinity, victimization, “social justice” and the call to “believe women.” And it’s coming into focus how the nasty rhetoric of the case represents a big step backward for survivors in the future.
You wouldn’t know it from the noise, though. The Depp fans are ready to cheer, and their cries will ring regardless of the verdict.