Say what you like about Amber Heard – no, seriously, do. You can say that the actor took a bump of cocaine while on the stand during one of the most high-profile defamation cases of the century. You can say she stole lines from The Talented Mr Ripley and recited them in court while testifying about her relationship with fellow actor Johnny Depp. On social media, you can say both of these baseless, untrue things, and many others besides.
In the past week, both of these unfounded claims have been spreading faster than wildfire. For those of you unfamiliar with the saga of Depp and Heard, bear with me: in June 2018, Depp sued News Group Newspapers – the company that publishes the Sun – after the paper alleged he was a “wife beater”. Later that year, Heard published an op-ed about sexual violence in the Washington Post (Depp wasn’t mentioned in the piece). Depp lost his libel battle against the Sun in London’s high court in November 2020, after the judge found the majority of alleged assaults made by Depp against Heard were “proved to the civil standard” (on the balance of probabilities). He is now suing Heard, for defamation over her op-ed in the Washington Post.
The internet has consequently turned feral. It is ironic that a defamation trial could prompt so much flagrant defamation. Constantly rolling cameras in the courtroom have allowed a complicated, intimate case to play out like a spectator sport. Endless clips of the trial have been hashed and rehashed on social media platforms for a braying audience. On social media, people are saying whatever they like about Depp and Heard, with disturbing, unhinged results.
One recent TikTok trend involved people making aroused facial expressions over an audio clip of Heard testifying about her alleged sexual assault by Depp (the audio clip has since been removed from the site). Another saw TikTokers acting out Heard’s abuse testimony, twisting and turning like pantomime actors in an attempt to point out supposed inconsistencies in her account.
Regardless of whether an individual believes Heard’s testimony, they should believe that nothing good can come from minimizing and mocking descriptions of abuse. The trial has made it clearer than ever that a culture of toxic fandom has poisoned our brains. On Etsy, fans can buy “Justice for Johnny” T-shirts and “Fuck Amber Heard” mugs. On social media, you are either Team Depp or Team Heard; Very few people seem to be on the side of the justice system. Why wait to see what the judge and jury have to say, when you can easily pick a side from the comfort of your own home?
For many, the case has become a source of comedy. On TikTok, cry-laughing emojis abound on courtroom clips with titles such as “Funniest witness moments so far” and “Johnny Depp funny moments part 3”. One user put a filter on footage of Heard’s testimony so that her nose protruded like Pinocchio’s. On YouTube, anyone and everyone is weighing in: a video entitled “Woodworker Attorney DEBUNKS Amber Heard’s ‘Broken Bed’ Testimony!” has more than 277,000 views. News websites have repeated unfounded claims in uncritical articles with hands-off headlines like “Viewers notice…” and “People are saying…”.
Is it asking too much that we treat a sombre issue sombrely? That we don’t turn a serious and sensitive trial into content for our feeds? In an ideal world, even the most salacious celebrity court case would be covered in a dignified, respectful manner. Even the biggest, most ardent, most invested fan would put aside their hero worship while a jury deliberates if their idol sexually assaulted a woman with a liquor bottle.
But fandom has never drawn the line at the courthouse door, and we are all poorer for it. Screaming fans have been filmed throwing gifts through Depp’s car windows as he departed from the Virginia courtroom. No trial should be treated like a concert or a meet-and-greet, and a court case should never be an opportunity to wave a homemade sign in a celebrity’s face.
Fans need to be aware that their own behavior around celebrity trials is under scrutiny. In theory, anyone can be sued for libel for what they write on social media (though in practice, the cases we read about involve tweets from those with high public profiles, such as TV doctors, rightwing provocateurs, and comedians). Even without the threat of a lawsuit, people need to be far more careful about what they post online. Fans may believe wholeheartedly that their idols are innocent, but serious accusations need to be taken seriously. Descriptions of abuse shouldn’t be made into jaunty comedy clips. Otherwise, we risk creating a world where people turn to TikTok videos for the final word on the truth, instead of the courts.
Amelia Tait is a writer on tech and internet phenomena
This article was amended on 11 May 2022. Johnny Depp is suing Amber Heard, not the Washington Post, as an earlier version said.
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