Trigger Warning: Sexual Abuse
This opinion isn’t about the Depp v. Heard trial. Sure, plenty could be said about the procedure of the case, or who may or may not be in the right or wrong, but that plays second fiddle to what I think requires a far deeper, critical consideration. It’s about the cameras, the endless coverage, the publicity and controversy surrounding both parties, their attorneys and even the witnesses and what that can do to a court case.
Some context, nevertheless, is necessary. In April 2022, Johnny Depp, one of the most recognizable actors in the world, sued his ex-wife Amber Heard for three counts of publishing libelous content in her 2018 Washington Post article, alleging over $50 million in damages for each count. Libel is the written defamation of an individual or other entity; there are usually several standards that need to be met for something to be considered libel, and at the bare minimum, there needs to be a false statement that is proposed as true, and demonstrable damages caused by that statement.
The case finally settled in June 2022 after what seemed like a never-ending stream of media coverage. In the end, Depp was awarded $15 million in damages, and Heard was awarded $2 million in damages from her countersuit.
Naturally, a case on this subject, concerning one of the most famous actors in the world, was bound to get public attention. But just how public was this trial made? Not only were court proceedings livestreamed, but videos under the TikTok hashtag #justiceforjohnnydepp also received 18 billion — yes, billion — views. Countless YouTube compilations have been published of “funny” moments from the trial, including moments of witness cross-examination. These compilations have received millions of views. Camille Vasquez, one of Depp’s attorneys, received fame and notoriety after her witness examination of Heard.
A court of public opinion had formed, made up of millions of consumers, judging the case and its parties. And they quickly backed Depp.
But why do people care so much about a mundane libel trial case and despise Heard so deeply? It isn’t a coincidence or accident, nor does it have anything to do with how much the world loves Depp. It’s the result of a coordinated media play to drive up viewership and revenue, and it worked phenomenally.
So, money was paid out, Depp got a huge outreach of social media support and following, his lawyers became famous, and all of this was simply because of Depp’s ironclad legal case and worldwide admiration as a beloved actor. Right?
Not quite. There are a few details missing from this picture, that when put together, can change how this case fell into — and unfolded — in the public eye. Where Depp has received support, Heard has received an unprecedented amount of criticism, and with the depth of criticism having no clear cap, people quickly turned to misogyny and threats.
The Daily Wire, a conservative news outlet and the second most popular news publisher on Facebook — and cradle to pundits like Ben Shapiro — spent $35,000 to $47,000 on social media ads promoting articles chock full of misleading information about the trial, reaching nearly 4 million viewers.
Combining the massive wave of social media activity, news coverage and opinion commentary, it’s easy to see how this case exploded into a viral event.
It’s certainly possible that the overwhelming coverage of the trial swayed the jury and influenced the decision. Even a jury, whose duty is to approach a case as objectively and as free of influence as possible, is almost certain to be exposed to the constant and often misleading pro-Depp content being spouted.
It won’t end with Depp v. Heard. This case — more specifically, the endless pro-Depp social media content — is a testament to what abuse survivors go through every day. Even before a verdict was even reached on whether or not Heard defamed Depp and his abusive past, the court of public opinion had made up its mind: Heard was a liar, gold-digger, monster, “Karen,” manipulator and con-artist. This assessment of abuse survivors happens constantly: the notion that they lie about their abuse, that they seek attention, and so on. When this happens, it prevents survivors from seeking help or reaching out.
Imagine how many of those TikTok videos under the hashtag #justiceforjohnnydepp either glamorized Depp or villainized Heard. Now imagine how many of the 18 billion views of those videos are from young girls and women who will see how Heard is treated for coming forward and have that shape their view of how they understand sexual violence.
This case and the media storm it created also emboldened many others to seek libel suits. Kyle Rittenhouse seeks to sue Facebook for defamation, but it is uncertain what kind of results that may bring. In a tweet, Rittenhouse said that the Depp case is “fueling” him to “fight back against the lies in the media.”
If the Depp case sets a precedent that libel cases or other suits of that nature can be swayed by public opinion, then it won’t be a surprise to see a libel case like Rittenhouse’s garner a similar media reaction. Media organizations like The Daily Wire seek to turn a profit, which they generate by bringing readers eye-catching, misleading content that sells a narrative and gets them to come back for more. There is no doubt they will find opportunities in future libel cases.
Social media can have major consequences on shaping how young people perceive the world and what is right and wrong. It’s hard to imagine that this “trend” had no effect, and it is worrisome to consider that, if people typically follow what’s popular, many young people will think it’s right to bash or detest Heard simply because it’s what’s trendy.
The Daily Wire didn’t promote and advertise its pro-Depp, anti-Heard publications because they have some deep love for Depp, but because it helps them back their conservative narrative of what they allege to be a plague of cancel culture and the #MeToo movement. Just days after the verdict was announced, Daily Wire posted an article called “‘#MeToo Is Dead’: Celebrities React To Depp Verdict.” Clearly, there’s an agenda to make Heard the villain, and that agenda has found its way onto TikTok and other platforms with success like no other.
It’s hard to find a solution to this. It is a symptom of a society that is so intimately absorbed in receiving constant stimuli from media and consumer advertising that they fail to see that their top form of trendy media entertainment comes from the harassment of someone who alleges they are an abuse victim. It borders on dystopian.
So, I’ll leave a plea to all those who might have been inclined to fester the already-mutated social media binge, or who may do so the next time something like this comes around: instead of treating two people trying to financially tear each other apart like a sports rivalry or a reality TV feud, let the law run its course.