TikTok’s Amber Heard Hate Machine

I did not follow the defamation trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard — it followed me.

A few weeks ago, images from the courtroom began to saturate my social media feeds. Platforms that fed me soothing cake decoration tutorials and “Sopranos”-themed therapy memes now served up regular dispatches from the proceedings, all filtered through the glorification of Depp and mockery of Heard. Heard blows her nose during her testimony, and a TikTok appears accusing her of snorting cocaine on the stand. Depp adjusts a phone cord near Camille Vasquez, his attorney, and the gesture is replayed in slow motion and exalted as a chivalrous deed. Heard’s attorneys introduce a series of violent text messages between the couple, and a TikToker films herself absorbing Depp’s words with panting, orgiastic reverence.

Depp is suing Heard, arguing that she defamed him in a 2018 Washington Post Op-Ed where she called herself a “public figure representing domestic violence”; she is countersuing, arguing that he defamed her when his lawyer accused her of perpetrating an “abuse hoax.” Many of the trial’s central incidents were previously aired in court in 2020, when Depp sued the British tabloid The Sun for calling him a “wife beater.” He lost that case, with the judge ruling that Heard’s abuse claims were “substantially true.” But I didn’t hear about any of that, because that trial was not broadcast live and replicated obsessively across the internet.

In the 1990s, the O.J. Simpson murder trial ushered in a new era of 24-hour tabloid news, in which celebrity worship and domestic violence were fused into an unceasing national spectacle. Judge Lance Ito later defended his decision to allow that trial to be televised. “If you take the cameras out of the courtroom, then you hide, I think, a certain measure of truth from the public,” Ito said. A journalist reporting on the trial, he added, might unconsciously skew its events through “the filtering effect of that person’s own biases.”

Nearly three decades later, as the Depp-Heard trial makes clear, a camera’s presence in a courtroom is an invitation for the proceedings to be deliberately, even gleefully tailored to a viewer’s whim. Platforms like TikTok and YouTube are practically built to manipulate raw visual materials in the service of a personality cult, harassment campaign or branding opportunity.

You might expect a defamation trial pitting one movie star against another to unleash a fire hose of debased memes in both directions, but that’s not what’s happening here. The online commentary about the trial quickly advanced from a he-said she-said drama script to an internet-wide smear campaign against Heard. As one of Hollywood’s most legendary heartthrobs, Depp enjoys a large and besotted fan base. But his campaign has since attracted the support of men’s rights activists, right-wing media figures, #BoycottDisney campaigners eager to capitalize off Depp’s status as a fallen Disney franchise star, sex abuse conspiracists, armchair true-crime detectives, anyone wary of “the mainstream media” and plenty of opportunists eager to draft off the trial traffic.

Seemingly harmless YouTube channels and TikTok accounts dedicated to legal commentary or body-language analysis have pivoted to pro-Depp content en masse. A husband-and-wife team of personal injury lawyers now spends its days posting trial-themed dance breaks and humoring Depp fans; a TikToker who previously ranted almost exclusively about anime has racked up millions of views with videos of fake Heard text messages he splashes over a looming Disney logo. TikTok is a bandwagon platform that rewards users for jumping unthinkingly on ascendant trends, so figures as innocuous as Lance Bass and the Duolingo owl mascot have thought it wise to contribute their own Heard mockery to the platform. If you’re following the trial on social media, you’re unlikely to encounter Heard’s defense at all.

Importantly, there is not just one camera in the Virginia courtroom. The pool camera system, which is operated by Court TV, films the proceedings from multiple angles, which continually shift to provide simultaneous shots — of the witness stand and the judge, or the defendants and the gallery, which is packed with Depp supporters who have lined up overnight to secure seats.

The sheer amount of material recorded each day enables viewers to examine every inch of the courtroom with a conspiratorial zeal, as empty gestures and meaningless asides are whipped into dubious case clues, spliced into humiliating Heard reaction GIFs or leveraged to build a charmingly unbothered bad-boy court presence for Depp. (He doodles in court! He can’t remember the names of his own movies!) Exhibits supporting Heard’s claims — like a video she recorded of Depp pouring himself a gigantic cup of wine and violently smashing glasses in their kitchen one morning — are stripped of evidentiary value and bandied about as memes. Each day of the trial begins with Depp fans convening online and joking about downing their breakfast “megapints” of wine.

Viewers assess both Depp and Heard’s court appearances as studied performances, but it is as if they have been cast in separate genres, with Depp playing the suave comedy hero and Heard pegged as the histrionic villain from an ’80s erotic thriller. YouTube thumbnails freeze their visages into masks of comedy and tragedy — he is perpetually smirking, she is permanently aggrieved. (Except when she smiles, in which case her expression is proffered as evidence of her calculated heartlessness.) The cartoonish construction of the double standard (animated hearts for Depp, devil horns for Heard) is the point — many TikToks are soundtracked with the circuslike theme from “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” trapping Heard in the role of sad clown.

Anyone else who appears in court risks being lifted into an internet folk hero or smeared as a liar. Heard’s attorney Elaine Charlson Bredehoft is branded a “Karen” (once a term for a racist white woman, it has since been flattened into an all-purpose misogynistic slur) and conspiratorially constructed as an undercover Depp fan, while Vasquez is cast as a Depp love interest, hailed as an internet sensation for her “intimate” interactions with her client. Seemingly every woman tangentially involved in the case has been imbued with imagined Depp-lust. Dr. Shannon Curry, an expert witness called by Depp’s team, has been celebrated for “exchanging glances” with Depp on the stand; even Curry’s husband, who she mentioned once delivered muffins to her office, has been inflated into a treasured fan fiction character referred to as “the muffin man.” Meanwhile, Depp supporters have harassed two of Heard’s expert witnesses off the medical professional site WebMD, flooding their profiles with one-star reviews.

Johnny Depp’s Libel Case Against Amber Heard

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In the courtroom. A defamation trial involving the formerly married actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard is currently underway in Fairfax County Circuit Court in Virginia. Here is what to know about the case:

The case. Mr. Depp brought a defamation case against Ms. Heard in an effort to clear his name from domestic abuse allegations that she has made against him and that he denies. The jury is also considering a countersuit from Ms. Heard, who claims that Mr. Depp defamed her when his former lawyer said her domestic abuse claims were a “hoax.”

Ms. Heard’s op-ed. Mr. Depp’s suit was filed in response to an op-ed Ms. Heard wrote for The Washington Post in 2018 in which she described herself as a “public figure representing domestic abuse.” Though she did not mention her former husband’s name, he and his lawyers have argued that she was clearly referring to their relationship.

The end of their marriage. Ms. Heard filed for divorce in 2017, just over a year after the pair had married. She also obtained a temporary restraining order against the actor after accusing him of hitting her. She later withdrew that claim, and in January 2017, the couple agreed to a $7 million divorce settlement.

An earlier defamation case. The trial follows another case Mr. Depp brought in London in 2020 against The Sun newspaper, which called him a “wife beater” in a headline. In that trial, a judge found that there was evidence that he had assaulted Ms. Heard repeatedly.

The domestic abuse claims. In the 2020 trial, Ms. Heard accused her former husband of assaulting her first in 2013, after they began dating, and detailed other instances in which he slapped her, head-butted her and threw her to the ground. Mr. Depp has since accused her of punching him, kicking him and throwing objects at him.

The internet livestreaming of the trial has created its own virtual sport. Each day hundreds of thousands of viewers congregate on YouTube livestreams, like the one hosted by the Law & Crime Network, and type comments into a racing sidebar chat. Some pay as much as $400 to have their comments highlighted and pinned to the top of the chat — the more you pay, the longer your commentary lords over the proceedings. During Wednesday’s stream, one participant paid to say that Heard “has a nesting snake on her head”; another promoted his YouTube novelty song about Heard’s legal team.

The immediacy of the livestream and its commentary gives viewers the illusion that they can somehow influence the outcome of the case; someone is always pleading for an internet artifact to be “forwarded to Camille,” as if obsessive fan attention alone might crack the case. This week, Depp’s team called a witness who surfaced after he posted a tweet in response to a pro-Depp Twitter account’s coverage of the trial.

Even if they cannot influence the trial itself, viewers can shape public opinion in real time. Once a fan fiction scenario gains enough momentum to achieve escape velocity, it is elevated into mainstream tabloids, which are rife with reports of Depp’s courtroom flirtations and epic witness-stand one-liners. Once gossip journalists had to craft celebrity story lines themselves, but now the narratives are lifted straight from social media and enshrined as Hollywood canon. Gossip sites are regurgitating banal celebrity internet activity as heartwarming Depp content: Jennifer Aniston followed Johnny Depp on Instagram as a “subtle sign of support,” the magazine claimed, and Depp followed Aniston back as a “sweet gesture.”

But when Julia Fox supported Heard on Instagram, she soon became the focus of articles about how she was hypocritical and “downright stupid.” When a celebrity does not provide such dubious material, it may simply be invented: recently a YouTuber edited and dubbed trial footage to make it seem as if Heard’s “Aquaman” co-star, Jason Momoa, has appeared on the stand to fawn over Depp’s lawyer.

It’s tempting to ignore all of this — to refuse to feed the machine with even more attention. But like Gamergate, which took an obscure gaming-community controversy and inflated it into an internet-wide anti-feminist harassment campaign and a broader right-wing movement, this nihilistic circus is a potentially radicalizing event. When the trial ends this week, the elaborate grassroots campaign to smear a woman will remain, now with a plugged-in support base and a field-tested harassment playbook. All it needs is a new target.

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