This trial tells us a lot about how the public decides who’s guilty before the courts can even make a decision.
Trigger warning: assault and domestic violence
If you spend any amount of time on social media, you would have seen the discussions surrounding the defamation case Johnny Depp has filed against his ex-wife Amber Heard. This fifty-million-dollar case stems from an op-ed that Heard wrote to The Washington Post back in 2018. In this op-ed she calls herself “a public figure representing abuse”, all the while never once mentioning Depp’s name.
While the crux of this case is abuse, it has, instead, become the public excavation of what appears to be a toxic relationship and a social media trial where people are either pro-Heard or pro-Depp. Let’s take a dive down the rabbit hole and see how these public opinions have been created using social media bots and paid promotions and what this means for abuse survivors who make their stories public.
Losing in the public’s court
Heard and Depp legally separated in 2016. In the same year, Heard also publicly accused Depp of domestic violence and requested a restraining order against Depp on the same grounds. When their divorce finally settled, both Heard and Depp came out with a joint statement that said, “There was never an intent of physical or emotional harm.”
Starting then, Heard’s credibility with the media was shaken up. Gossip websites began casting her as a liar and started rallying to support Depp. With the defamation case, Heard’s public image has only tarnished further, with the hashtag #JusticeforJohnnyDepp gaining about 15 billion views on TikTok, a staggering difference from the 8.2 million views earned by the hashtag #IStandWithAmberHeard.
Why the internet is pro-Depp
People believe Depp’s story
There are a lot of factors to consider when we look at the massive support Depp has been amassing over social media. Naturally, the joint statement we mentioned before definitely helped his cause. But, other than that, being the first one to share his side of the story in the defamation trial has also been beneficial for him. People heard what he had to say and immediately made up their minds. Of course, we cannot ignore the presence of men’s rights groups and anti-feminist sentiment on the internet, both of which are well organized and would therefore be in a position to make themselves heard.
Use of bots to tarnish Heard’s reputation
When we look at the kind of hate Heard is getting, it is hard to digest that all of it is purely organic. Heard herself brought up the same question when she counter-sued Depp for US$100 million in 2020. She claimed that Depp and his legal team were using bots to smear her image. The countersuit also said that many of the pro-Depp accounts included Cyrillic characters (the Russian alphabet) and that Adam Waldman from Depp’s legal team had public connections with Russian individuals capable of launching such smear campaigns.
Even if we don’t go by Heard’s claims, a simple study of the social media activity that anti-Heard campaigns have been receiving suggests that bots are being used. For instance, the Change.org petition urging Heard’s removal from the Marvel superhero movie Aquaman 2 had over 4.3 million signatures as of May 24, and yet the comments on the petition are nowhere near the number of signatures. This may be because to make comments, people have to sign in with verified email addresses which are harder to create than bots to sign campaigns.
Another way to verify bot usage is through the disparity of support Depp is getting across platforms. The Reddit group supporting Depp only has 42,000 members, but on Twitter, more than 20,000 accounts consistently post negative comments about Heard. This may be because Reddit uses internet protocol version 4 (IPv4) wherein creating fake IP addresses is more expensive. Moreover, the hate towards Heard on other social media platforms, like YouTube and Instagram, is a repetition of phrases, like “Your lies are revealed” and “We don’t love her”. It is an indicator that bots may be deployed to amplify these negative voices.
Paid promotions for pro-Depp content
Another reason why we may be seeing more pro-Depp sentiment is that it is actively being promoted. Vice conducted an investigation where it found that the conservative news outlet Daily Wire has spent between US$35,000 and US$47,000 on Facebook and Instagram ads to promote articles that cast Heard in a negative light. Despite an obvious pro-Depp bias, some of the information being promoted is just plain inaccurate.
One of the articles the publication advertised is called “The Attempted Character Assassination of Johnny Depp”. This article discussed the libel case Depp had fought against UK-based media publication The Sun, which had called him a wife-beater when reporting on Heard’s domestic violence allegations. The Daily Wire’s article claimed that Depp had been able to disprove 12 out of 14 claims made by The Sun, when in fact, that was not true.
What we can take away from this case
With all the hate Heard is getting, this case has the potential to scare domestic violence survivors off into silence. What makes the hate even more alarming is that in the libel case against The Sun, the court held that Depp had put Heard in fear of her life. Even in the current case, Heard’s legal team produced Depp’s text that read “I will f*** her burnt corpse afterwards to make sure she is dead” which does indeed suggest problematic behavior on his part.
While the case has revealed Heard’s violent history and does show us that she isn’t the perfect victim, gender justice advocate Farrah Khan says that the online discourse fails to grasp the nuance of the case. She even questions how the public forgives Depp for problematic behavior because of his drug and alcohol problems, whereas Heard is called the worst possible names for her wrongdoings.
Ironically, the op-ed that started this case also sums it up the best. Heard had written, “… I became a public figure representing domestic abuse, and I felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out.” This is precisely what we are seeing in all the memes and jokes being made at her expense online.
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Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons