As the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard defamation case plays out in a Virginia court, a separate trial has been playing out online, where the verdict skews heavily toward Depp being the “real victim.”
For weeks, memes and reels calling Heard a “liar,” a “psychopath,” and a “manipulator” have congested social media. They make fun of her hair, outfits, and facial expressions, and at times even wish her dead. On TikTok alone, the #justiceforjohnnydepp hashtag has been viewed 16.3 billion times—compared to only 53.6 million for #justiceforamberheard (not even close to 1 percent as many).
Today, that judgement is in our group chats, at the bar, and may even come up over dinner, and it’s a reality that in some ways has already declared Heard the loser—even if she wins in court.
“If anything, it'll probably be worse for her if she wins,” Mandi Gray, a gender justice expert and researcher with the University of Calgary, told VICE News. “The public humiliation is, in my opinion, going to increase.”
At least some of the pro-Johnny content comes from right-wing site Daily Wire, founded by Ben Shapiro. (VICE World News found how Daily Wire spent thousands of dollars on pro-Depp advertising.) But there have also been rumors that trolls and bots are rapidly spreading content in defence of the Pirates of the Caribbean actor. Then there are the content creators who have started commenting on the trial to gain followers and clout.
The overwhelming deluge of content targeting Heard is itself abusive and humiliating, experts say, and it’s partly why we, collectively as a society, are failing Heard.
“I don't think we've only failed Amber Heard. I think we've failed all women who've experienced gendered violence,” Gray said.
Regardless of whether you believe Depp or Heard or both, many of us are piling onto the abuse Heard has repeatedly said she’s experienced: by creating—or actively consuming or sharing—anti-Heard vitriol. It’s also why Depp, in some ways, has already won, experts say.
“It takes a village,” said gender justice advocate Farrah Khan. “It’s not just about the person causing harm; it’s about the people around who enable, uphold, and encourage it.”
All this is taking place while we’re still days away from a verdict in the Fairfax courtroom, where Depp has launched a $50 million defamation suit against Heard in response to a 2018 Washington Post op-ed that Heard wrote about her experiences with domestic assault. The piece didn’t name Depp, but the Oscar-nominated actor maintains it’s “plainly” about him and that it cost him his career. Heard is countersuing Depp for $100 million in damages. Heard and Depp accuse each other of being abusive while maintaining their own innocence.
For weeks, the court has heard harrowing testimonies from both actors, who’ve produced images, audio recordings, and private text messages to make their cases. In one string of texts, Depp said he wanted to “burn” Heard and that he would “fuck her burnt corpse” to “make sure she is dead.” In an audio recording played repeatedly for the jury, Heard tells Depp that she “hit” him, but didn’t “punch” him. “I did not fucking deck you,” she says in the audio. Pictures of Heard with a bruised and swollen face, and hair ripped out of her scalp, accompany several allegations of abuse she says she experienced at the hands of Depp.
Depp says Heard cut off the tip of his finger during the infamous Australia fight. (At the time, he told people he did it himself.) It was during that fight that Heard says Depp repeatedly threw glass and penetrated her with a bottle. She told the court Depp held a broken bottle to her jaw and told her he’d “carve up” her face.
Comments accompanying trial livestreams have made light of Depp’s violent texts (“lol Johnny”) and honor his allegations, while they call the images of Heard’s injuries “photoshop” and spam her testimony with puke emojis.
Even people who say they’ve experienced abuse themselves have expressed their disdain for Heard. But, as Khan said, we’re only experts when it comes to our own experiences.
“That doesn’t make you an expert on domestic violence as a whole because it happens in so many different ways,” Khan said.
“You'll have more perpetrators—and more violence.”
Several gender-based justice advocates have told VICE News that Heard should be believed, and note that defamation cases are very often used by abusers to further control and coerce survivors.
Gray, who has studied the phenomenon and is being sued herself in Canada for tweeting about sexual assault allegations, said such legal cases are a “way to publicly humiliate people, women primarily, and gain control.” That’s partly because when you’re sued, you have to hand over a large part of your life: text messages between friends and families, emails, and more, that are then scrutinized in court.
“It’s a very invasive process to go through,” Gray said, adding that by initiating defamation suits, perpetrators can also attempt to “flip the script.”
“This case is not the exception. It’s the rule,” Gray said.
But even if Heard is lying, would it justify the hate swarming our social media feeds? “Wouldn’t you still say it’s not OK—I don’t want her harmed, I don’t want her hurt?” Khan said.
The vitriolic comments are already causing a silencing effect. Some readers have reached out to say they’re too scared to speak out against Depp because they don’t want “his horde” attacking them.
Soon, it will silence domestic violence victims and survivors themselves, said Jaclyn Friedman, a feminist writer and founder of EducateUS, a group dedicated to improving sex education in the U.S.
“You’re just going to see fewer victims speaking up. Some victims will think that they can’t even leave because they've seen their friends and families attack Heard and support Depp,” Friedman said.
“What all of that means is you'll have more perpetrators—and more violence.”
This would likely play out even worse for other women, especially women of color or poorer women. Heard’s sexuality has been weaponized throughout her fallout with Depp: Tabloids have painted her as promiscuous and imply she cheated on Depp—all because she has dated both men and women. But the Aquaman star is also white and conventionally attractive.
So, if we treat a cis white woman so poorly, “what are we saying to the rest?” Khan said. “I think about Megan Thee Stallion… I think about FKA Twigs.”
Heard’s case also has the potential to shape how young people understand sexual and domestic violence. About one-third of TikTok users in the U.S. are between the ages of 10 and 19 and more than half are women. They’ll undoubtedly see Depp-Heard content. Many of these users will experience sexual and domestic violence themselves, Khan pointed out.
“This is an issue we should be taking seriously because this is one of the biggest public misinformation campaigns we've ever seen about domestic violence,” Khan said. “This case is shaping how young people view domestic violence.”
Khan also said the way this is all playing out will create a “how to harm” playbook, too.
So, while a “win in court is better than a loss,” Friedman said, “the message has been sent to not just current victims, but future victims that you need to be willing to go through public humiliation, character assassination, and retraumatization.”
The court case is expected to wrap up Friday, with a verdict expected soon after. But as Friedman pointed out, “a lot of the damage has already been done.”
In the meantime, Heard and Depp’s legal teams are tying up their cases now in their final attempts to sway the jury. But eerily prescient text messages written by Depp years ago suggest that what’s going on outside of the courtroom is already going his way.
“I have no mercy, no fear and not an ounce of emotion, or what I once thought was love for the gold digging, low level, dime a dozen, mushy, pointless dangling overused flappy fish market… I’m so fucking happy she wants to go to fight this out!!! She will hit the wall hard!!!” Depp wrote in 2016, presumably about Heard after she filed for a restraining order against him.
“She’s begging for total global humiliation... She’s gonna get it.”
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