Why are so many of us following, or in some cases obsessed by, the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard defamation trial? Sarah Lang has been watching.
Abortion. Putin. Covid. You might think these would be the most-searched terms on Google right now, given the pandemic that’s killed 15 million people (and counting), the mass murderer invading Ukraine, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s horrifying leaked plan to restrict abortion access. And, yes, those topics have been searched a lot.
But what is currently being searched the most? Some sort of combo of these six words: ‘Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial’. As you can’t have not heard, Depp is suing his ex-wife for $50 million because she made (alleged) defamatory statements about him in an opinion piece she wrote about domestic abuse – which Depp says irreparably hurt his career. She’s counter-suing him for $100 million, claiming he defamed her when she was accused of being a liar, a hoax artist and committing perjury (lying under oath). Yes, both must wish they’d never met.
“Many people are following the trial like sport. People have chosen sides.”
Many people are interested. Very interested. According to Google Trends data, there were nearly four times more Google searches for Heard’s name over the last month than there were for abortion or the Supreme Court.
As American news website Axios stated, according to data from media-monitoring platform NewsWhip, “news articles about the trial, which began April 12, have generated more total social-media interactions (likes, comments, shares) than coverage about abortion, the Supreme Court or inflation”. From April 4 to May 16, the average number of social-media interactions per published news article, by topic, was: 508 on the Heard-Depp trial, 417 on tech entrepreneur Elon Musk (who is also Heard’s ex-boyfriend), 141 on abortion, 91 on the Russian-Ukraine war, and 44 on Covid-19. Wow.
What’s made the case extra fascinating is that the trial is being live-streamed. The major provider is the Law&Crime Network’s YouTube channel, which is attracting one million viewers per hour of the trial.
For ‘work purposes’ (ha), I’ve been watching much of it. TBH, I’d rather be watching it now than writing this piece. Why does this trial fascinate me and, clearly, many others? Why are we watching?
When Reality becomes ‘Entertainment’
Well, reality TV is a popular genre, and this trial is arguably more compelling than most reality-TV shows – as well as being stranger than fiction. Maybe there’s an element of voyeurism – of peeking into other people’s lives. Maybe some of us, even subconsciously, get some satisfaction from knowing rich people don’t have the perfectly curated lives we see on Instagram. And maybe it’s just really interesting to try to analyse Depp’s and Heard’s facial expressions and reactions.
Perhaps watching it is part of a desire to distract ourselves from the awfulness of a world where WWIII may actually happen, where women are losing reproductive rights, and where catastrophic climate change is looming. Are we sick of reading about issues we feel we can’t do much about, and this trial is diverting us?
The trial has certainly had its WTF moments, such as the star comic turn by Alejandro Romero – the doorman from the former couple’s apartment building. When his deposition was pre-recorded, Romero, who was sitting in his car, vaped at points, said ‘everybody’s got problems’, then started driving (to get lunch, it’s suspected) while concluding his testimony and without his seatbelt in front of a JUDGE.
That judge, Penney Azcarate, had a meme-able facial expression right after that, saying “that was a first”. I’d love to know what’s going on behind her composed face. Is she thinking this is all bonkers? Also, I love that she paused the trial for a week to go to a pre-planned conference, leaving Virginia’s motels and hotels full of waiting lawyers and underlings, and leaving viewers impatient.
This case is complicated. For background, there was a civil case in 2020 which saw Depp sue The Sun newspaper for libel, after it called him a wife-beater. The judge decided there was enough information suggesting that Depp abused Heard to rule in favour of The Sun. No, this wasn’t a criminal charge, so it doesn’t mean Depp was convicted of domestic violence.
This current trial is also a civil, not a criminal case, so no one’s off to jail for defamation. In the U.S. system, there’s a heavy ‘burden of proof’ regarding defamation cases. The onus is firmly on the plaintiff to show the defendant’s statements were false, as reflected by a “preponderance of the evidence”.
To find in Depp’s favour, the jury must first decide that Heard’s statements in the op-ed – including calling herself “a public figure representing domestic abuse” – were indeed referencing Depp although he wasn’t mentioned by name. (This alleged defamation is being considered in three parts: the print article, the online version, and Heard’s tweet posting a link to the online version.)
Depp’s legal team must show the op-ed damaged his career directly. But what’s providing the gladiatorial combat we’re seeing is each side trying to prove or disprove that Heard wrote what she did with ‘actual malice’: either with knowledge it was false, or with reckless disregard for whether or not it was false.
It’s worse than a court of public opinion, because social media is designed to set up a brawl.
Heard admitted to hitting Depp. But what if the jury decides that Depp perpetrated domestic abuse (a term which also covers verbal or emotional abuse) on Heard even just once? That means that, even if the jury thinks Heard was the primary aggressor, the op-ed wasn’t defamation and Depp loses the case. The jury must also decide whether Depp defamed Heard via specific statements alleging she perpetrated a hoax. The jury – who should get long-service medals after this, btw – may not award damages to either.
All this is my understanding, but I’m no legal expert so do read about it in articles like this one. Many hard-core ‘viewers’ of the trial – and also some people who are consuming video snippets – feel strongly about who is telling the truth. Yes, there’s a gender divide among supporters. However, some women won’t admit they believe Depp for fear of letting down the #metoo movement. Some men believe Heard, but would rather not disagree with other men. There’s an argument that this case might make it harder for female victims to come forward. There’s also an argument that it might make men more likely to come forward.
No one is suggesting that any of us shouldn’t have an opinion. I have an opinion – but I’m aware it’s only an opinion. Those who believe Johnny Depp’s version: that’s just an opinion. Those who believe Amber Heard’s version: that’s also just an opinion. Those who think they’re just as bad as each other? Also, just an opinion. Many ‘opinion pieces’ in mainstream media suggest Depp is guilty. Again, that’s just an opinion. And most people on social media seem to assume Depp is innocent. Again, theirs is just an opinion.
Why are we obsessed?
Dr Kevin Veale, a lecturer/postgraduate supervisor at the School of Humanities, Media and Creative Communication at Massey University in Wellington, is “fascinated with storytelling and popular culture… [and] the ways in which a media form changes the experience of stories they mediate”.
He has some thoughts about “structural and cultural things going on behind the curtain” with the trial, which he’s been exposed to since “it’s everywhere online”.
“People get very invested in celebrity trials. This one has been on the horizon for a long time, with news articles about [promoting] one side of things, to whip things up. Now, information is being spread by social media and clips are being taken out of context. Many people are following the trial like sport. People have chosen sides.”
There are social-media hashtags and related videos including #JusticeForJohnnyDepp (11 billion views on Tiktok), #JohnnyDepp (19 billion views on Tiktok).
The ‘memeification’ of the trial on social-media platforms is concerning. By memes, I’m referring to ‘digital artifacts’, composed of words, pictures and sometimes video clips. A meme has also been defined as “a virally-transmitted image embellished with text, usually sharing pointed commentary on cultural symbols, social ideas, or current events”.
Whatever your opinion, should people be mocking domestic abuse, in a case where both individuals clearly have some mental-health issues?
Many memes are using soundbites from the trial set to songs. Some, for instance, interpret Heard’s facial movements as lying or Depp’s wry smile as smirking. There are much more awful memes, and we just won’t go there. Whatever your opinion, should people be mocking domestic abuse, in a case where both individuals clearly have some mental-health issues?
Veale says memes like these are damaging. “People create almost war propaganda – something for a side to bond over, and use to attack the other side: the demons, the enemy.”
U.S.-based writer Clémence Michallon isn’t a fan of memes. “The process through which we digest other people’s torment and cough it back up in the form of memes is a complete void of empathy,” she wrote. “This is a trial, not the Super Bowl or the Met Gala.”
Yet, well before closing arguments, more than 4.3 million people have signed a petition asking Heard be removed from the already-filmed movie Aquaman 2. More than 700,000 people have signed the petition ‘Justice for Johnny Depp’ asking he be included in the Pirates of the Caribbean’s potential sixth instalment.
What does Veale think about the idea of Depp winning in the court of public opinion, now that more evidence is out there? “It’s worse than a court of public opinion, because social media is designed to set up a brawl. This kind of division is profitable, so it’s encouraged in social media. Like, Twitter is designed to cause fights.”
YouTube pays video creators so the platform can insert ads. “On social media, what Whitney Phillips calls ‘chaos entrepreneurs’ make extreme content – and make more money – to gain income from harassment,” Veale says. “We’ve got these structures of online capitalism, so even if you aren’t interested in this trial, it’s hyped up and put in front of us – fed to us – and that expands the pool of people who might be interested.
“So that’s a waiting, willing audience of people who follow news cases and who, regardless of circumstance or context, consume content that tears down women.”
“Social media whips up the court of public opinion and tries to make everybody have a take. We’re asking each other what they think about the trial. And the first video someone sees might say Amber lied, so that person start watching already primed to believe that. This trains the YouTube algorithm to promote similar negative takes.”
“I’m sure there are online communities that are vigorous defenders of Amber, but the pro-Depp people have a much bigger social-media footprint. There are organised groups of men’s-rights activists on social media in a ‘manosphere’ that’s been building for years. So that’s a waiting, willing audience of people who follow news cases and who, regardless of circumstance or context, consume content that tears down women. These people can be mobilised to boost content, share videos and add hashtags.”
Again, Veale isn’t saying Heard is guilty, just that some people want her to be. “A lot of this is about tearing down anyone challenging abuse, particularly if they’re women.” Coverage of the trial, he says “has been very hard to ignore, which has been stressful and traumatic for survivors of abuse”.
“Social media is holding a microphone up to everyone and saying ‘what’s your opinion on this divisive subject?'”
He says the problem is far bigger than this trial. “Negativity equals more clicks. People who are stressed or angry click on things more, respond more, and do it less thoughtfully. Which means they’re likelier to say something tone-deaf or off the cuff, which gets them attacked by other people. Meanwhile YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and TikTok are making money.”
“Effectively, social media is holding a microphone up to everyone and saying ‘what’s your opinion on this divisive subject?’ Social-media companies would love it if, in five years’ time, people are still yelling [online] about this trial and who was right and who’d been failed by the court system.”
“With this case, we’re never going to actually know the truth. Will the final court decision be ‘true’? We hope so, but it’s not certain.” No one will really ever know.