A recent story on the homepage of the website Law&Crime wasn’t a story at all, but a celebration. “Law&Crime Network Hits Record 330 Million Viewers On Depp v. Heard Coverage,” the May 2 headline read. The site and its attendant YouTube channel give viewers a chance to “watch the courtroom drama unfold live,” its tagline promises.
That business model has proved prescient with the ongoing Virginia civil trial in which Johnny Depp is suing his ex-wife Amber Heard for defamation gripping the nation. (Heard has claimed that Depp repeatedly physically abused her during their brief marriage, while Depp alleges that Heard was the abuser, and that she defamed him with a Washington Post editorial after their divorce. In the editorial, Heard did not use Depp’s name, but did describe herself as an abuse survivor.)
While Law&Crime celebrated, a 27-year-old singer-songwriter and graphic designer named Haider Ali was busy taking clips from the outlet’s livestream and that of other news outlets and repackaging them for his own, rapidly growing audience. His most successful video so far, posted on May 3, has racked up 2.5 million views; it’s a recap of the testimony from Heard’s psychologist, Dawn Hughes, presented with minimal, but disapproving, commentary: “Amber Heard's psychologist Dr. Dawn Hughes kept on trying to refresh her recollection by reading her notes,” the description reads, “and acted sarcastically while being annoyed.” The description of another highly watched video from his channel—1.5 million views so far—reads “Johnny Depp's Lawyer Ben Chew CELEBRATES As Amber Heard ADMITS Abuse — WOW.” (Heard testified that day that she hit Depp “square in the face” after, she alleges, he hit her sister Whitney.)
Another pro-Depp trial YouTuber who’s racked up millions of views said that before the trial, he had exactly 349 subscribers; today, he has more than 12,000. Mid-interview, the YouTuber told me he is 15 years old, and makes videos during the day because he’s homeschooled. (We have chosen not to link to his channel or name the content creator because he said he is a minor.)
“I watch some videos about the trial and then if I see anything out of the ordinary I upload about that,” he said, describing how he makes his videos. His most popular video has gotten millions of views; it’s a clip of Amber Heard seeming sad and angry during her testimony, with comedic music in the background and the occasional emoji pasted over it.
The Depp/Heard trial is a nightmare of convergence, the uneasy intersection of genuine news and a salacious narrative fit for a Lifetime movie: two ultra-famous and beautiful people accusing each other of despicable acts in the public view. It also has a level of public visibility not usually afforded to domestic violence cases; because it’s a civil trial where news organizations have (fairly) won access to the courtroom, every second is being live-streamed, and news organizations, including this one, have covered every lurid development.
The fact that people are consuming the trial as entertainment isn’t remotely in question: The anti-vaccine personality and game show host Jenny McCarthy recently posted a video to her Twitter and Instagram, showing her raptly watching the trial on her cellphone while doing mundane tasks like eating cereal and cleaning her house. “Anyone else?” she captioned it. (Heard had been testifying that day, and alleged that Johnny Depp sexually assaulted her with a bottle; in other words, it was possibly the worst possible day to lightheartedly poke fun at how enthralling you’re finding this whole thing.) Over the weekend, a characteristically unfunny SNL sketch made light of an allegation from Depp’s side that Heard had left human feces in his bed; the premise was that the judge allows footage of domestic staff discovering the poop to be played in court, because, the judge-character tells Heard’s lawyer, “This trial is for fun.” I’m culpable too, watching hours of trial testimony when it’s very much not part of my job.
The trial has generated an explosion of armchair commentary on YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and elsewhere, the kind usually reserved for the disappearance of an attractive white woman. Everyone is watching, and everyone feels qualified to weigh in: homegrown psychologists, self-taught detectives, general celebrity culture watchers, body language “analysts” (a number of whom have made videos analyzing Heard’s behavior during the trial, virtually always negatively), and, of course, legal commentators for seemingly every news network in the country. (The owner of Law&Crime, Dan Abrams, is one of these people: besides running Abrams Media, the company that Law&Crime is part of, he’s ABC News’ chief legal analyst.)
Even the budget makeup company Milani decided to get in on the game, using its TikTok account to cast doubt on Heard’s claim that she carried a Milani pallet to cover bruises during her relationship with Depp, suggesting the pallet in question wasn’t produced until after the couple broke up. (Milani later told NBC it was “not taking a formal stance on the trial, evidence or future outcome of the case.”) The hashtag #johnnydepptrial on TikTok has one billion views so far, while #justiceforjohnnydepp has more than 10 billion. A trend has been to refer to Heard as “Amber Turd” or simply using the poop emoji. (TikTok didn’t respond to a request for comment on whether it’s moderating any Depp/Heard content.)
There’s a particularly grim irony to the true crime-adjacent TikTokers getting into the Depp commentary game. True crime, as a genre, tends to heavily feature stories about missing and murdered women. Those women are, more often than not, victimized by romantic partners. Yet some of the most widely shared TikTok videos are often skeptical of Heard’s story, using various supposed minor tells to prove that she’s lying, pretending to cry, or “posing” for the cameras in mid-distress. (As Buzzfeed observed, the fanbase on TikTok seems composed of “a combination of OG actor fans, Harry Potter stans, and true crime aficionados,” particularly fans of the Menendez brothers, the murderous duo convicted of killing their parents in 1996, who are experiencing a groundswell of horny and extremely young fans proclaiming their innocence on the app.)
There’s also a question—on both sides of the case—of how much of this conversation is organic. Heard’s side previously accused Depp of sending a phalanx of bots and trolls to attack her and her supporters during a previous lawsuit in England. (Depp lost a libel case there in 2020 against The Sun, which had described him as a “wife beater.” The court ruled that the Sun article on Heard’s abuse claims was “substantially true” in ruling against him.) Fox News recently ran a thinly-sourced story claiming that “11 percent” of the Twitter accounts participating in the Depp/Heard discourse were inauthentic, most of them weighing in on Heard’s side; the story had a single source, a tech firm called Cyabra that said it had analyzed 2,300 accounts tweeting about the trial.
The inevitable presence of some amount of bots and trolls notwithstanding, the fact remains that there’s an enormous amount of attention and money to be gained from weighing in on this trial, which is why news outlets and would-be influencers alike are spending so much time commentating on it. As that attention economy winds it way downstream, it also meant that smaller social media accounts have fully shifted to Heard/Depp content too. The smaller YouTubers, like Ali, who have never covered news or courts before, have trained their focus to pumping out multiple videos on the trial per day, and seen massive follower growth in the process. That means the trial isn’t just being memeified—it’s turning into an opportunity for monetization and attention.
Ali is based between Los Angeles and Pakistan; until three weeks ago, he had 100 or so subscribers on a barely-watched YouTube channel where he posted videos of himself covering Metallica and Linkin Park songs on the guitar. After being transfixed by a few minutes of the Johnny Depp trial, which he saw on a live feed on Twitter, all that changed. Ali says he experienced domestic violence from an ex-girlfriend, and he sees himself in what Depp has gone through.
“I realized many things were kind of relatable to the things I had witnessed in my relationship,” he said. “So as I gained interest in the trial, I all of a sudden decided I should share these videos and hope others like me would relate and we would be able to talk about it openly.”
What that has meant, in practice, are videos in the same genre as other pro-Depp YouTubers recapping and memeifying the case. One of the top searches on YouTube for Johnny Depp’s name is “Johnny Depp trial funny moments,” and Ali’s is one of the first pages that comes up. Another page, run by an anonymous operator, used to solely post Family Guy clips; now it alternates between the cartoon and Depp clips, one of which racked up nearly a million views. Another account posted nothing but little-watched tutorials for a computer modeling program called SolidWorks. When it began posting Depp content, view counts per video quickly climbed into the millions. Another channel tried for virality with celebrity drama and gaming clips; it, too, got view counts in the millions with videos like “Johnny Depp dealing with Amber Heard's lawyer.” A person calling himself Andrew Pandrew who mostly posted video game clips prior to the trial posted one of the most viral YouTube videos, “Johnny Depp Being Hilarious In Court! (Part 2),” which to date has 22 million views.
YouTubers who previously focused on gaming clips seem overrepresented, in fact, in the new spate of Depp content creators, posting multiple clips a day of the same content, repackaged; videos with unflattering captions imagining especially stupid or venal thoughts from Heard are especially popular. (Many of these channels often repost what seem to be the exact same videos, ripped without credit from other sources. Those specific videos feature the same, distinctive music and use a clown emoji in the subtitles to depict when one of Heard’s lawyer’s is speaking.)
Several Depp content creators on YouTube responded to emails requesting comment, only to have detailed and unusually canny questions about how an interview with them would be used. One person, a woman in her early 20s, upon learning that I would be speaking to multiple people, responded with a counter offer. “Would you be interested in doing a personal story about my channel where I can provide you [with] full analytics of my channel and profits(if made)?” she wrote. (She later changed her mind about speaking to me.) Ali asked if our interview would be shared on VICE’s social media channels, a question I could not answer. The 15-year-old YouTuber wanted me to make sure I linked to his YouTube channel.
The 15-year-old said he started making YouTube videos about video games last year, but that when he saw Depp/Heard trial clips “blowing up on Youtube” he thought, “You know what, I could probably do this too.”
He found the trial interesting because, as he put it, “Johnny Depp. Jack Sparrow.” I asked what that meant, and he replied, “One of my favorite movie actors is part of a trial, it’s unexpected. It seems really interesting.” His sense of how the trial is going, he said, is “Johnny Depp is innocent. Because he’s cool.” Of Heard, he said, “She’s a turd,” adding, “I always thought that. She looks like one.”
He said his parents were “fine” and “happy” he was making these clips. His channel was just monetized recently, he said, which, if he is 15, would have meant, in theory, that a parent or guardian would have to sign up for a Google AdSense account, and that payments would go to that adult. (A followup email to the teen, asking to speak with his parents about their role in his channel, was not immediately returned.)
Haider Ali, the 27-year-old singer songwriter, repackages live trial coverage with more detail than many other sources, and strives for original clips; he’s been surprised by the number of views he’s gotten.
“There’s been a stark difference,” he said by phone recently. “My guitar videos weren’t getting anything. I wasn’t even posting that much. One video every month or so. When I started posting these, I don't know why, but people are really taking an interest. The view count skyrocketed and I've gained almost 10,000 subscribers.” Every “single second,” he said, he’s been getting thousands of comments. “It’s really surprising to see that.”
For his part, Ali says his videos aren’t currently earning money, and he’s conflicted about whether he’d even want to do that. “Right now I’m not,” earning money from the videos he told me. “But if I get that opportunity at some point—” He paused. “But I'm not sure if I will. I feel like it's not my content. Even though I'm working hard to make clips and thumbnails and post them, there’s something inside me that doesn’t feel proud to earn money from this. That wasn’t my goal. My goal was to hear from other people, their stories.” He also added a “note for trolls” to the description of his videos, which reads, in part, “I am not making money from any of the trial videos, nor will I ever do it. Stop asking me about it. I don't need money, I work for it, and I am fortunate enough.” (However, both Haider and the teen have “Thanks” buttons on their videos, allowing users to tip them, meaning their channels are currently monetized and it is possible to earn money from the videos they’re making.)
The trial coverage also serves as a way to grow an audience and then, when it’s over, hopefully redirect that audience’s attention to something else.
“I don’t hope to make this kind of content when the trial is over,” Ali told me. “I’ll definitely go back to music. At my core I'm a singer-songwriter. That is who I am as a person. That’s what I’m passionate about in my life. If some people leave because they think it’s a channel where i'm posting trial videos, I can't stop them. But I think most people would stay.”
In the meantime, however, the only thing that really racks up pageviews is explicitly pro-Depp content, making for an exceedingly one-dimensional narrative of a notoriously messy saga, one that’s already played out in multiple countries and courtrooms thus far. At a time when Depp’s large and intense fanbase is contributing to a sense that the entire internet is siding with him, the incentives of traffic and attention for people trying to attract traffic to their own channels are only helping to reinforce that narrative.
Small-time content creators like Ali—it’s not even a term he particularly identifies with, he told me—find themselves in the position of helping to shape the discourse online, without fully reckoning with what they’re doing to that discourse, or to themselves. His own experience of abuse, Ali said, means he’s finding the trial somewhat re-traumatizing.
“Because of posting these videos I have to watch all those clips over and over before deciding what to post or not to post,” he told me. “There were a lot of times when I'm seeing a video that I find triggering and disturbing. At one point I had to stop and think why am I even doing this and torturing myself listening to these stories? That’s something that happened to me. At times it’s very difficult.”
The 15-year-old was not having the same issues. It was necessary to make videos about Heard, he said, “because she’s screwing him [Depp] over.”
At the outset of our conversation, he’d said he would go back to making video game clips when the trial was over. But, he told me later, he might want to do something different with his channel instead. “Whatever makes me blow up.”