Depp Trial Puts Social Media Ugliness on Full Display
The court of public opinion, the dangers of stan culture and the refusal to believe women over famous men
If you’ve spent any time on the internet over the last few weeks, you’ve almost certainly seen content — much of it combative, and clickbait-y in nature — regarding the defamation trial of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. For those somehow lucky enough to have avoided the case, and the drama surrounding it, Depp is suing Heard for a 2018 Washington Post piece where she recounted her experiences of speaking out about alleged abuse by former partner Johnny Depp (though he is not actually named in the op-ed). Heard, meanwhile is simultaneously counter-suing Depp after his former lawyer described her allegations as a “hoax”.
The rest of us — often not by choice — have been bombarded with content surrounding the case. Most of it leans into being, or explicitly is, pro-Depp and, nearly all of it is sensationalist and bombastic. Video’s of Heard getting laughed at garner hundreds-of-thousands of views on Youtube, while TikToks where mostly-women suggestively mouth the words to Heard’s testimony alleging abuse, silently moaning in between pauses, achieve similar traction. Everyday of the trial, dozens of Johnny Depp super-fans (or stans) descend onto the court — sometimes even sporting Pirates of The Caribbean garb. The end result is that Heard — a woman whose accusations were deemed largely truthful by a British judge just four years prior — now has to turn up to court day-in, day-out and relive her trauma in front of an almost entirely unsupportive audience.
In the court of public opinion, facts matter only as a means to an end; useful if they support the dominant narrative, expendable if not
Suffice to say, this behaviour is a disgrace to the basic principles of justice regardless of who is on trial. But it’s especially painful in these circumstances — and is no doubt, many multitudes worse to watch unfold for victims of abuse. In his 2020 case against the Sun newspaper, Depp admitted to blackout rages. In that same case, texts were revealed from Depp to Heard, where he branded himself a “fucking savage” and “lunatic” and Depp’s assistant was found to have admitted that Depp was abusive towards Heard. Meanwhile, regarding the infamous incident of the faeces found in the bed — something which has been definitive in public reception towards Heard — the judge in that same case expressed deep scepticism Heard was responsible. Not least, because Depp had already left for his Sweetzer property at that point — meaning it would be Heard who would largely suffer the consequences.
I could go on all day listing all the incriminating evidence against Depp. I could go on about the recording of her telling Depp to put his “cigarettes out on someone else” and him responding not with a denial but with “shut up, fat ass”. Or I could go on about how in 2015, Heard showed up on James Corden’s Late Show with a notably swollen lip, and how the make-up artist from that night testified Heard visibly had a split-lip, a missing chunk of hair and a black eye before makeup was applied.
It’s tempting to write an entire long-read dedicated to the evidence supporting Heard’s testimony — both because there is so much of it, and because it has received such pitiful coverage. But the truth is that in the court of public opinion, facts matter only as a means to an end; useful if they support the dominant narrative, expendable if not. With any justice, Depp’s claim will lose on the facts, but the “global humiliation” he once wrote that Heard was “begging for” is complete. If anything constructive can come of this circus of a trial then, it is this: never again should a court case be conducted and publicised in this manner. Never should an alleged abuser be able to walk with in mere feet of his accuser in the court-room, causing her to involuntarily flinch in the process. Never should a brigade of armchair psychologists and obsessed fans control the dominant narrative over a sensitive case like this. Never should a case be livestreamed with the claimant and defendant’s faces constantly side by side so that their every action can be gawked at and analysed by a millions-strong, virtual baying mob. Regardless of the particularities of this case, it’s shameful that this isn’t a source of universal agreement.