TikTokification: The people versus Depp and Heard

Abi Ramsay details how the court of public opinion put Johnny Depp and Amber Heard through a trial by social media.

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Image Credit: Harald Krichel

Over the past few weeks, actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard have had their relationship exposed to the world via a defamation trial. The trial saw Depp suing Heard for $50 million in damages, after a 2018 article written by Heard for The Washington Post insinuated that Heard is a survivor of domestic abuse. In 2021, Heard counter-sued Depp for $100 million, and on 11 April 2022 the lengthy trial began which grabbed the attention of millions.

At the beginning of June, Depp won the trial, gaining $15 million in compensatory and punitive damages, and Heard, winning just one of her three counter-claims, received $2 million in compensatory damages. The trial captured the attention of the world, with the US judicial system blurring the line between entertainment and law. For decades, celebrity trials have been used as the focal point of American television, starting with the trial of Ted Bundy in 1979 which was the first to be broadcast nationally, and continuing to the gruelling 11-month trial of the People v Simpson between 1994-95. Unsurprisingly, Depp vs Heard globally became a hugely popular trial, with the verdict being ruled by two groups – the court, and social media.

On Twitter, the case was trending, with hashtags such as #JusticeForJohnny and #AmberHeardIsAPsychopath making their rounds. The social media inclusion saw fans become binary opposites; you could either support Depp or Heard, but there was no room for sympathy with both parties. Social media giant TikTok also became inundated with clips from the trial, causing some moments to go viral. As it was a defamation trial, Heard and Depp’s private lives were laid-bare and shared with the world, as soundbites of phone calls and details of alleged sexual assault and abuse were exposed to the public. It is not just Depp and Heard who were being subjected to public opinion either, with the testimonies of the two naming other celebrity figures. Kate Moss testified for Johnny Depp, and actor Paul Bettany had his private correspondence with Depp shared with the world, including a conversation between the two men which joked about burning and drowning Heard.

In a typical Gen-Z fashion people kept up with the trial in one way: memes. The TikTokification of the trial created more memes and soundbites than any other platform. Some of these show the iconic nature of Depp’s legal team, with Camille Vasquez and Ben Chew celebrated for their actions in court. Other sounds broke down Heard’s testimonies, with beauty brand Milani Cosmetics proving that the concealer Heard allegedly carried in her bag to hide bruises was not released until 2017 – a year after Heard filed for divorce. As TikTok and Twitter became the main source of information for many fans, the problematic qualities of the internet's reliability shone through. When Depp spoke of alleged abuse by Heard, he was praised for breaking the stigma attached to male survivors of domestic abuse. Alternatively, when Heard spoke of instances of alleged sexual assault and abuse, she was called a liar by millions. Social media did not allow for a dialogue where both Depp and Heard could have been simultaneous perpetrators and victims of abuse. Instead, one party had to be lying, and the internet collectively decided it was Heard. Fans of the trial were not split evenly either, with social media being dominated by pro Johnny Depp propaganda.

Even after the end of the trial, Buzzfeed is still engaging with the hero v villain dialogue, with a recent article comparing the celebrities who liked Depp's post trial instagram post, compared to those who liked Heard's. By emphasising who influential figures are supporting, social media is collectively becoming a place where there is a ruling of who is right and who is wrong, with Depp’s viral success unintentionally blocking out the voices of female survivors of assault. Even though the instances of sexual abuse against Heard are alleged, the story she paints of non-consensual acts against her are indicative of instances that have happened to other sexual assault survivors. Certain sounds which have been going viral on TikTok have made fun of these recounts, due to the sheer hatred Heard is now receiving. The hate towards Heard is now responsible for diminishing the voices of survivors of sexual assault, and the important work of the #MeToo movement. This trial has proven that Depp was abused by Heard. Alternatively, Depp’s 2020 trial in the UK versus The Sun found that Depp had physically abused Heard on at least 12 occasions. However, following the ruling, social media fans have forgotten about the outcome of the 2020 trial, focusing instead on persecuting Heard. The same users who inundated social platforms with #Me-Too, are now isolating Heard from the same dialogue. Heard has also received numerous death-threats and backlash for her involvement in the trial. As far as Depp fans are concerned, he is a saint, with some extremists wanting Heard to die.

In the court of public opinion, the case is as clear as night and day. Depp was the winner of the case, and Heard is the villain. After receiving the outcome from the jury, I fear that – regardless of my own opinions – Heard has been signed a life sentence by the public. A motion that wouldn't have been passed without the scrutiny of social media acting as judge and jury.

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